The Perfect Way of Saying No

It can be awkward to refuse an offer or request but it's essential to our well-being
June 3, 2021 Updated: June 3, 2021

My 3-year old is better than me at some things. Yes, it’s tough to admit. I so often focus on what I need to be teaching my daughter, it’s easy to overlook what she teaches me.

As we were having lunch one day, I asked her if she wanted her favorite lunchmeat, salami. Out of her mouth came three words I had never before heard her utter, “No, thank you.” As I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked her where she had heard that. “From myself, Mama.”

That sounds about right, since she certainly hadn’t heard it from me.

The nonchalance with which she said those three words struck me. She just stated it, plain and simple, no strings attached, no emotional baggage behind it.

She didn’t say, “Oh I’m so sorry, but I’m just not in the mood for salami today, I hope that’s OK?”

She didn’t say, “I’m not sure, let me think about that salami option and get back to you in a few hours.”

She didn’t say, “Well not really, but if you want me to have the salami then I guess I will.”

She has heard me say each of those phrases too many times to count.

Something tells me if you are someone who takes risks, enjoys adventure, and invests in people, then you might find yourself saying them quite often also.

We need to reconsider the power of saying “No, thank you.”

I wouldn’t recommend just saying no—that’s just rude. If you live in the South as I do, you aren’t going to get away with that type of behavior if you want any friends.

But “no, thank you” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

It adds a touch of civility to the whole interaction and lets the other party know you at least appreciate the offer.

Sadly, even this perfectly affable statement has become taboo in our culture.

We have forgotten how to say it and just leave it out there. Let it hang thick in the air, and bask in the awkwardness it inevitably produces.

We have to justify it, to give our reasons, to run down our laundry list of obligations. This constant desire to keep everyone happy around us is killing us and keeping us running in a thousand different directions.

In life, in business, in creativity, in relationships—saying “no, thank you” is vital. Without it, we can’t say yes to what truly matters. We can’t simplify anything.

How do we say “no, thank you” more often?

1. Know your values.

Values aren’t just things the Moral Majority liked to sling around in the ’80s. Even if you don’t think you have them, you do. Your calendar and your bank statement will give you a pretty good idea of what they are.

Once you know them, you can decide if they are taking you where you want to go. If you don’t know what matters most to you, if there is no true north, then saying yes and no is going to be a daunting task.

2. Be aware of the season you are in right now.

Did you just start a new business? Have a new baby? Are you charging full speed ahead with a project, or currently sailing with the breeze?

Take a moment to assess where you are and allow your values to reflect that. Sometimes “no, thank you” can simply mean, “not right now.”

3. Identify what is draining you and what is feeding you.

It’s important to ask yourself this often. It applies across the board. What people in your life are encouraging, helpful, and reliable?

What clients do you simply love working with? What projects do you love working on and cannot believe how fast time has flown by when you are in the flow of it? Focus on those things, and begin to say “no, thank you” to the rest.

4. Focus on where you want to go.

Visualize your life five years from now. Where are you? Who are you with? What are you working on? How are you spending your free time?

Once you know where you are headed, you can much more easily identify what is helping you, and what is hindering you. Then you can give the heave-ho to the things that are holding you back from stepping into that future.

Let’s all practice together. Say it with me now, out loud. “No, thank you.”

Say it in the mirror while you are brushing your teeth. Say it while you are walking the dog. Before you have to say it to anyone in real life, let the words roll around in your mouth. Get comfortable with it.

Then try it out. Say it to someone, and just wait. See what happens. Something tells me they will be less disappointed or hurt than you imagined, and you may just feel a newfound sense of exhilaration and purpose.

And most importantly, you will now be able to say YES to what truly matters.

Hilary Barnett lives and works in Nashville, Tenn., with her husband, two daughters, and Boston terrier. She has been writing professionally since 2008 and is currently publishing her first book called “The Good Enough Mother: Reimagining Motherhood and Work.”