How to Say No
Without Feeling Guilty

How to say no is something we are rarely taught to do well. Instead, we tend to use guilt and manipulation, and we never feel comfortable with our decisions. Over the years, I have researched different ways to deal with this situation and I now feel relatively at ease with my decision when I have to say no. This article is the result of this research.

When I became aware of how to say no

I once asked my friend Liza to help me prepare for an upcoming concert at our choral society. I basically knew the songs but needed to practice the difficult parts. Liza readily accepted and set a rehearsal time for the night before the concert. However, she left me the following voicemail before the rehearsal: "I would really like to help you practice but, in the meantime, I have been invited to a party. Now, I know that you are going to do very well at the concert and you only need my help to feel more comfortable. Also I would very much like to go to the party, so I hope you won't mind if I cancel our rehearsal. And again, I know you don't have to worry about your singing. You'll be fine!"

After listening to this message – twice – I felt... impressed! Liza was saying no, but in a manner that was so honest and so elegant that I was okay with it.

Liza was the first person who taught me how to say no without feeling guilty. Since then, I have learned a few techniques that have clarified the process for me and have made it easier to understand and to apply.

Evaluate the consequences of saying no

The problem with being afraid of saying no is that you may create negative consequences – such as giving time that is needed elsewhere or feeling you are being used – that generate resentment and may hurt your relationship with the person to whom you are saying no.

On the other hand, saying yes may provide you with the joy of helping, with an opportunity to learn or to deal with a difficult situation, hence to increase your self-esteem.

Before saying no, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. In the above example, Liza was entirely clear about what she wanted – i.e., the party – and how I may feel if she canceled our appointment. She therefore focused on the fact that I would still be able to sing well... and she was right!

If saying no is going to create too much guilt within you, it may not be worth it. However, the techniques explained here may help reduce your guilty feelings, once you know how to say no.

Be honest

When we don't know how to say no, we have a general tendency to lie and make up an excuse we assume is more believable – or at least more acceptable – than the truth. For instance, instead of mentioning the party, my friend could have said she had a family emergency. She could also have pretended the party had been scheduled before our appointment but she had 'forgotten'.

When people don't know how to say no, they use excuses such as "Not tonight dear, I have a headache..." which has nothing to do with a headache, or the typical teenager's response "I don't know..." which translates into "I don't feel like answering!" What is wrong with those excuses is that we – consciously or subconsciously – know they are not true. Their effect is to undermine our relationship with the person with whom we are using them. After a while, there is no more trust.

When you tell the truth – without being blunt – you show self-respect, enhance your self-esteem and, in the process, you teach others through your behavior, like Liza taught me.

Use the word 'because'

According to research, the word 'because' triggers our subconscious mind to accept that the reason that follows will be valid... even if it is not! Apparently, people waiting in line at a photocopy machine were willing to let someone go first when she gave a reason such as "Can I please go before you because I have to make a photocopy?"

Even without the word 'because', giving a reason will go a long way in making your answer more acceptable, especially if you are entirely honest. Liza didn't have any problem telling me her reason for canceling was a party. And I had no problem accepting it!

Offer an alternative

Offering an alternative requires some thinking but it is very effective in learning how to say no without feeling guilty. You get the person to focus on another solution, which lets you off the hook.

Born and raised in France, I arrived in Canada in my early twenties eager to improve my English. I came as an 'au-pair' (live-in babysitter) in an English-speaking family. A few years later, a distant French cousin – whom I'll call Brigitte – wrote to me. I was then living in the Toronto area, with my brand new Canadian husband, in our newly purchased house. In her letter, Brigitte announced her intention to come to Toronto to improve her English. She was hoping I wouldn't mind letting her stay in my house for six months and also asked me to find her a job. I barely knew Brigitte but I was keenly aware of her reputation of taking advantage of several family members without offering anything in return.

After pondering on the situation for a few days, I wrote a long letter back to Brigitte. I thanked her for thinking of me and congratulated her on her desire to improve her English. I then suggested that a stay in a totally English environment – instead of living with her French-speaking cousin – would be more useful to her. I recommended she apply for an au-pair job, gave her details about the job, such as salary, work hours, immigration requirements, and provided a few names and addresses where she could apply.

As you can see, I didn't openly refuse her proposal – even though it was implied – but I refocused her attention on a different solution, putting the ball in her court and letting her know she was in charge of the outcome.

She never applied for the job and never came to Canada, but she felt extremely grateful towards me and told everyone how great her Canadian cousin was!

If you put a little effort into helping someone, even if it is not exactly what he or she was asking for, your suggestion of a workable solution will be highly appreciated.

Use the law of reciprocity

The law of reciprocity is what companies use when they offer you free samples. By giving you something in the first place, they create a debt on your part and generate a subconscious desire for you to cancel it. How? By buying their product! You can use the same law of reciprocity in learning how to say no.

Let's say someone wants to borrow your car. If you refuse by saying "no, but can you please walk my dog?", you restore a subconscious feeling of balance. You said no, but you are giving the person an opportunity to also say no to your request. This way, everyone is even. This usually works well in stopping guilt trips.

However, you have to make sure your own request is also going to be met with a no. If the person accepts to walk your dog, you are back to square one and the law of reciprocity cannot function! So make sure your request is an impossible one. Because of the risk, I rarely use this technique.

Whatever technique you decide to use to learn how to say no, remember that your objective is to preserve your relationship with the person, while maintaining everyone's self-esteem, including yours.

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