No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

How to say ‘No’!


No!Some words don't come easy... and the 'no' word is harder than most. Dawn Smith examines the attitudes underlying the common reluctance to turn people down, and unearths some tips on how to say 'no' successfully.

The propensity to say 'yes' when we really mean 'no' is deeply ingrained, says Dr Susan Newman, author of 'The Book of NO'. She believes people do it for a number of reasons: wanting to please, wanting to be liked, needing to be needed, being timid, wanting to avoid confrontation, not knowing their rights, or just feeling that they 'should'.

Often, people exaggerate the negative consequences of saying 'no', observes Steve Bavister, senior consultant at communication skills training company, Speak First. "They think bad things will happen," he says. For example, they may think that by asserting themselves they will put their relationships with other people in jeopardy.

This, and related assumptions, are tackled during the 'Influencing with Impact' course run by Speak First, which uses techniques from cognitive behaviour therapy to challenge beliefs and give delegates some practice at saying 'no' in different scenarios. "It quickly dawns on them that the world doesn't come to an end," says Bavister.

"As soon as you start giving people information, they can start to unpick it. Keep your 'no' short."

Steve Bavister, Speak First

In fact, saying 'yes' can have more negative consequences than using the 'no' word, comments Newman. She makes the point that: "The damage done by saying yes indiscriminately affects you much more than your refusals affect the people you turn down".

Significantly, saying 'yes' when you want to say 'no' can harm relationships with the very people we are trying to keep sweet, says Colin Welch, training manager at Silicon Beach Training: "Taking on everything does not win us respect... and we want that too! We can end up feeling resentful, taken for granted or even used and in the long term this can lead to us being very frustrated with ourselves and can affect our relationships with others".

And of course saying yes to everything can cause us to let people down. "It's better to under promise and over deliver," comments business coach and counsellor Caroline Lloyd-Evans, principal of CLE Training & Consulting.

More than just assertiveness

According to Impact Factory, which runs training courses on the art of saying 'no', using the no word is a specific behavioural skill which is not all about assertiveness. The company has produced a book entitled 'The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No', penned by Jo Ellen Gryzb and Robin Chandler. According to the authors, assertiveness is often seen as a single form of behaviour: "Just say no, stand your ground, be a broken record" - which are all quite difficult if you are a truly unassertive person.

They believe that practicing the art of saying 'no' should go beyond trying to be assertive, and include a range of behaviour, such as humour, submission, irresponsibility, manipulation, playfulness... or even aggressiveness, if it fits the situation. "Using charm, humour, telling the truth or even deliberate manipulation, may well get you what you want without having to attempt behaviour that may go against your personality," they say.

Take a pause

If learning to say no when appropriate requires behavioural change and an attitude shift, there are various techniques that can help when the temptation to say yes looms. Newman advises getting into the habit of asking yourself the following questions before saying 'yes' to anything:

  • Do I have the time?

  • Will I feel pressured to get it done?

  • Will I be upset with myself?

  • Will I be resentful of the other person?

  • Will I feel duped, had or swindled?

  • What do I have to give up to do this?

  • What's in it for me?

"Over time and with practice, no will become your first option," she says.

Of course, asking yourself a list of questions takes time, and that means delaying your answer - which is one of the best ways to avoid a knee-jerk 'yes', says Lloyd-Evans. You don't have to say 'yes' or 'no' immediately, she points out. "You can say 'leave that with me, I'll think about it'."

Newman suggests requesting all the details before committing to anything, and adds that you should "refuse anyone who insists on an immediate answer".

Let your 'no' be 'no'

When saying 'no', it's especially important to align body language and tone of voice with what you're saying, comments Bavister. "Be clear that your no is a no." If your body language or voice are saying 'maybe', you won't get your message across, he warns.

Smiling, in particular, gives a mixed message and weakens the effect of what you're saying, according to Impact Factory, while on the other hand, standing up makes you look and feel more in charge.

More tips on using the NO word

Keep it brief
Give your reasons for saying no, but don't make up excuses and don't give lengthy explanations, says Bavister. "As soon as you start giving people information, they can start to unpick it," he comments. "Keep your 'no' short."

Don't be too sorry
"You always have the right to make or refuse a request. Excessive apologising will only undermine your case," says Welch.

"Listen for apology in their voices, a slight reluctance to ask, a telltale wavering. Each is a clue that your no will be accepted without challenge or consequences."

Dr Susan Newman

Pre-empt the situation
If you see a colleague approaching you with 'that look in their eye', and you know you're likely to get lumbered, be proactive and make it clear before they make their request that you're swamped with work, says Bavister. You can also pre-empt unwelcome requests at meetings, advises Impact Factory, by announcing at the start that you can't fit anything else into your schedule.

Avoid emotional blackmail
"Playing the martyr and trying to make the other person feel guilty will only work in the short term," says Welch. "People soon become fed up with the 'poor me' mentality and it may lose you a lot of credibility in the workplace."

Find an alternative
"Suggest someone else or offer an alternative solution," says Newman. This allows you to be helpful, without saying yes.

Work out a compromise
This might be the best way to deal with a demand from a boss that you can't meet, says Bavister. "Saying no is complicated in a situation where there is position power," he observes. "If you must say 'no' you should say it, but try to find a workable compromise. For example, if you can't work late, suggest coming in earlier in the morning. Or negotiate a deadline on something else." Newman suggests altering a request to make it - or part of it - manageable.

Look for the waver
Another strategy that can be especially helpful when dealing with requests from superiors is to look and listen to how the request is being made. "Often bosses know when they are asking something beyond the normal range of what is expected," says Newman. "Listen for apology in their voices, a slight reluctance to ask, a telltale wavering. Each is a clue that your no will be accepted without challenge or consequences."

Beware of 'distant elephants'
A task in the distant future looks smaller, so you're more likely to say yes than if it was happening tomorrow. "When a chore is to take place in the future, the tendency is to think about it in a generalised way, rather than about the hassles and problems involved," warns Newman.

When they won't take 'no' for an answer

Some people are naturally good at getting people to do what they want, while others may have received training in the art of persuasion, says Bavister, who trains people on both sides of the fence with Speak First - those who want to say 'no', and those who want others to say 'yes'. When faced with persuasiveness and persistence, he advises using the 'broken record' technique.

"You need to keep repeating your message in the same way, without your emotions getting hooked, without adding to it or giving more reasons," he says. The same 'repeat repeat' technique is suggested by Welch, who comments that it's important to be clear from the start about what you can (or will) do and what you can't (or won't) do. "This is your 'bottom line' in the negotiation and you will need to stick to it." he says.

Steve warns that eventually the broken record technique can break rapport, so you need to do it with empathy. For example, you can say 'I understand you have a problem, but I can't help because I have a commitment'. "Empathy is crucial or you can find yourself in a situation of conflict and confrontation," says Steve. "For someone who doesn't like saying no, that's probably their worst nightmare!"

Contacts and resources

CLE Training & Consulting:
Impact Factory:
Silicon Beach Training:
Speak First:
'The Book of NO', by Dr Susan Newman (McGraw-Hill):


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!