Say Yes to No

Say Yes to No

Fall pulses with the heightened energy of important and urgent projects and initiatives. We stride into the fall with vigor: we have a crisp focus at work; we scan catalogs of self-improvement workshops; we resolve to reignite simmering social connections. We have a lot to do!

But it seems that other people have a lot to do, as well, and sometimes they want to include us. Requests, invitations, favors, errands- often we’re delighted to be included, happy to help, willing to comply, and we answer affirmatively. But what if we don’t want to? Many people say yes anyway and suffer for it in one way or another later. “Why did I say I’d do this?” is muttered.

I think the answer is that it’s hard to say no. Why?

  • Habit: You’ve always done what someone asks;
  • Guilt: You feel obligated to be agreeable;
  • Surprise: You’ve been caught off guard!
  • Want approval: You want others to value you;
  • Trade-off: You can ask for something you want;
  • Excuse: If you do this you won’t have to do some other thing;
  • Option-deprived: You think yes or no are your only options;
  • Lack of awareness: You don’t realize the impact this will have on your time and energy;
  • Be nice: You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings;
  • Avoid conflict: You don’t want to deal with any negative attitude that might result.

Sometimes just recognizing why you avoid saying no is enough to get you to stop nodding your head. Then you can consider some ways to construct your response, from simple to complex:

A – Refuse

B – Affirm/reinforce

C – Explain

D – Assist by offering alternatives

For example:


“No.” (Yes, you can say this.)

“Sorry, I can’t do that.”

A +B

“No, thanks, but I’d like to come with you another time.”

“I can’t but I hope you’ll ask again.”

A + C

“Thanks, but no, I have an appointment that afternoon.”

“Sorry, I can’t; I’m working on a project and I’m feeling a lot of pressure to get it done.”

A+B +C

“Thanks, but no. I have an appointment that afternoon, but I hope you’ll ask again.”

“Sorry, I can’t. I’m working on a project and I’m feeling a lot of pressure to get it done. I’d be happy to help if I could.”


“Sorry, I can’t. You might ask Oberon. He has a lot of experience in making things happen.”


“Sorry, I can’t. I’d be glad to help you if I could. You might ask Oberon. He can work magic.”


“Sorry, I can’t. I’d be glad to help if I could, but I’m feeling a lot of pressure to get my project done. Maybe Oberon could help you; he has a lot of experience.”

Of course, the voice tones and facial expressions that accompany these statements add meaning. Try saying a few of them with different sub-texts, such as the following:

  1. “I wouldn’t do that if my life depended on it.”
  2. “Oh dear, I so wish I could do this, but I just can’t!”

Whichever response you choose- even if it is “yes!”- should be what you think is best for you, because eventually true feelings have a way of making themselves known. You won’t be doing either one of you a favor if resentment makes an appearance.

Tell us about your language at work:

– Is saying No hard for you? In what ways?

– What other communication challenges are you facing?