Newsletter 569 – Hardest Word for Most of Us To Say?

Just say no 1It is not a vulgar word or a long word like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of Mary Poppins fame. A Wall Street Journal article (March 11, 2014) calls No a “tiny word, but tough to say.” Many years ago former First Lady Nancy Reagan had an anti-drug campaign with the slogan “Just Say No.” Sounds like a great idea but it’s very difficult to comply when any of us is surrounded by peer pressure urging us to say yes.

Saying no is especially difficult when the request is legitimate or when we want to please the person who asks. When asked to help with a worthy cause, donate money to charity, or help a friend – or even a stranger, many of us say yes because we feel uncomfortable or guilty if we decline. We value kindness and being helpful. We don’t want to reject others or risk hurting a relationship. Some of us are people-pleasers who want to be liked so we make ourselves available to anyone who calls. These may be admirable characteristics but they can create problems. I have a friend who rarely sets boundaries. He revels in the opportunities and projects that he has been offered and accepted. This is affirming and ego-building. But periodically he gets overwhelmed because he failed to say no. Sound familiar?

None of us was created to meet everyone’s requests. Even Jesus set boundaries (e.g. Mark 1:35-38). Each of us hasJust say no 2limited time and energy. These need to be rationed. Saying yes to one thing means that we are forced to say no to another. Our families, closest relationships and health all suffer when we let other people set our agendas. How, then, do we say no?

  • Set your priorities. I don’t accept committee assignments or speaking invitations apart from my specialties.
  • Clarify your values. Never agree to something that you think is wrong or unwise.
  • Delay your answer. This gives you time to think how to say no.
  • Avoid peer pressure situations.
  • Give reasons for saying no, but avoid debates about your decision. These often lead to more pressure.
  • Don’t say “Maybe later” unless you mean it. These words insure that you will be asked again.

What would you add? How do you help yourself or others to say no?


  1. Start your answer with “While.” It gives you a moment to think and provides the latitude for a full spectrum of decisions:

    While I’d love to accept your gracious invitation, unfortunately I’ll have to decline.
    While I’d love to accept right away, I’ve found my over-commitment is unhealthy for me and my family, so I’ll need a couple of days to get back to you.
    While I’d love to say no because I’m a busy person, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do on that day, so it’s a yes!


  2. Hey Gary,

    I love this important article. Just to say thank you for all your weekly inspiration which often gets me thinking. I really appreciate it. Sorry I don’t contribute more or express my appreciation more – probably because I am too busy – usually because I have not said no. Here are some great questions I plan to use more and more that can help us say no when it is hard to say no

    Thank you for asking. Do you mind if I ask why you’re asking me?
    Have you asked anyone else?
    What is you think I can do that others can’t?
    Have you considered asking X?
    When you say, ‘urgent,’ what does that mean?
    When is the latest this has to be done by?
    How much time will this take?
    If I could only do part of this, what part would you like me to do?
    What should I not do so I can do this instead?

    adapted from, Michael Bungay Stainer, Do More Great Work, (New York: Workman 2010) p.90,91. Fantastic little book!

    I like your ‘While’ bit too Rob.

    Many thanks Garry

    Sean Kennedy
    (Life and Leadership coaching, personal and leadership development – England)


  3. It is such a paradox, this small word has such large effects in our lives. How we give, or receive, a ‘no’?

    There seems to be a huge dichotomy in wanting to take an active part in any community with others, yet only finite quantities of time/resource available to us (especially if we don’t want to spread so thinly we become less effective). How to say ‘no’ in a positive and honest way is critical to engagement with others. Likewise, how we receive one!

    Not saying ‘no’ well can become a real hazard when we are particularly motivated to help others. We can tip too far into doing more and more (slipping into people-pleasing) – loosing sight of the importance, and grace, of …while I would love to……

    The question suggestions are really helpful to reflect on, thanks.

    There is so much depth in this concept, Gary. Thank you for bringing it to mind. It has helped me appraise how I’m making current checks and balances around ‘no/yes’ and avoiding self-inflicted stress.


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