Just say no

If you put yourself under unnecessary strain by always saying ‘Yes’, then it’s time to learn the art of the graceful refusal. Why saying yes is not for the best…


As far as stress is concerned, many of us are our own worst enemies. At work and at home we will give into demands that we know we shouldn’t and then wonder why we feel so cross, anxious and overburdened.

If you’re the type of person who can always be prevailed upon to come in early in the morning or work late at night to mop up others’ inefficiencies, or if you’re the one who always organises the school fete or holds all the family events, then now may be the time to prioritise what really matters to you and learn how to say no to all the rest.


Often our reasons for acceding to others’ demands are a result of childhood conditioning. As children, we may have learnt that if we were ‘nice’ or ‘good’ we would be rewarded with parental or public approval. Or we may have been taught that to refuse a request is selfish or irresponsible. But what might have been an acceptable stricture in childhood, can lead in adult life to impossible strain, both physical and psychological, as we try to juggle the many demands of a complex life. Now that you are grown up, it is important not to mistake internal conditioning for external pressure.


Everyone has the right to say no, when saying yes may cause them harm. One useful technique of refusal is to affirm your own personal bill of rights. Simply state aloud to yourself in an assertive voice any of the rights which you feel apply to your personal circumstances – rights such as:

• I have a right to a private life.
• I have the right to choose my friends.
• I have the right not to have to mop up after someone else’s
• I have the right to free time.

When you are next confronted with a situation where you might be tempted to accede to demands that are detrimental to your well being, you will already have developed the rational basis of your refusal.


Practise refusing on people who don’t matter to you either at work or at home: people like market researchers or door-to-door salespeople. First make eye contact with them, then, in a calm, assured voice say, ‘No’, or ‘No, thank you’. Yes, be polite, but don’t feel the need to give an extravagant apology. If saying no makes you feel guilty, try internally repeating your personal bill of rights.


One of the most popular techniques used to change non-assertive behaviour into assertive behaviour, is the application of the Broken-Record Technique. Children use this technique all the time in a relentlessly assertive manner – ‘Mommy, can I stay up late… Mommy can I stay up late…’.

Now, it’s your turn to adopt it – and use it against a whole raft of unassertive behaviour such as making excuses, telling lies or just caving in.

First, choose a simple phrase or sentence, such as, ‘No thank you, I don’t want to.’ Then repeat it – again and again – whatever the arguments, requests, questions or demands for justification that are made of you. Remember to stay calm and keep your voice steady; then just wait for the message to sink in.


The broken record technique on its own, however, may come across as unduly harsh, and there are various modifications to it that you can use to soften your newly learnt position of non-compliance:

1. Empathise

To your broken-record core statement, simply add a phrase which indicates that you understand how the person making the request is feeling. For example, you might say: ‘I appreciate that you are on a very tight deadline, but I’m afraid I can’t do this work until the morning.’

2. Negotiate
On the whole, most people who need to learn to be more assertive are already masterful compromisers, so this technique should only be adopted in extremis. If you really feel that your original broken-record statement cannot stand unqualified, then you might like to add a negotiating sub-clause such as: ‘I am so sorry I cannot meet you for dinner this week, but why don’t we fix up a date next week for lunch?’


Once you have decided to say ‘no’, it is important not to waste emotional energy on feeling guilty. Remember, you don’t lose friendships, people’s respect, or your job from occasionally saying ‘no’. Saying ‘no’ merely shows that you know your own limitations, and others will respect you for that.


About Lisa Freedman

Lisa Freedman is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent and Woman & Home magazine.

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