We’ve all been there. We’re minding our own business when we get a call, an email, or a “whaaaat’s happening?” Office Space-style cubicle visit, and that other f-word gets lobbed at us: favor.
Sometimes, of course, we say yes. We’re delighted to help out — it’s fun, rewarding, or win-win. But sometimes we feel anything but delighted: we feel bad, obligated, resentful, or pressured. And it’s almost guaranteed: we feel guilty.
So today, let’s talk about why not to feel guilty when you say no to coming in on Saturday, coordinating the preschool fun fair for the third year in a row, or loaning your pickup truck to your friend who’s moving this weekend. That, plus seven concrete ways to say no, from beginner to ninja.
Let’s start with why you shouldn’t feel guilty about saying no. First, guilt is an emotion reserved for when you do something wrong. If you hurt someone, it’s appropriate to feel guilty. Now, saying no might create a little extra work for the person you’re declining because now they have to ask someone else or otherwise rethink, but it falls well short of hurtful.
To make this more visual, picture a flowchart — saying no simply sends someone in a different direction. People are scrappy and creative. If you say no, they’ll recalibrate and take another path. You’re no Obi Wan Kenobi—seldom it is true that you’re really someone’s only hope. There are almost always other options out there for them and the favor they need.
Second, we often feel guilty because not only do we with think we’re hurting the other person, but we expect retaliation. We think, “She’s going to hate me,” “He’ll get mad,” or “I’ll get fired.” Our brains jump to the worst-case scenario. So instead, let’s take a step back and look at all the other, much more likely possibilities that our brains leap-frogged over on the way to the worst.
Ask yourself instead, what’s a more likely scenario? Maybe your requestor will be momentarily disappointed, but understand and then get help elsewhere. Or, let’s generate a most likely scenario this way: what happens when someone says no to you? Do you fly into a rage, burst blood vessels, and froth at the mouth? I’m assuming you don’t. So why the double standard? Expect reasonable others to react as you do—that is to say, reasonably.
OK, now on to seven ways to say no!
1. Offer an alternative.
This is the easiest way to say no. Decline the request, but offer a consolation prize. “My schedule just doesn’t allow me to proofread your dissertation before your deadline, but here’s a link to a great article on the five biggest dissertation errors to watch out for.”
Just make sure you’re not offering an alternative solely out of guilt — your goal is to actually be helpful to the requestor, not just to make yourself feel less guilty.
2. Connect with empathy as well as saying no.
Demonstrating that you’ve truly heard and understood the person’s request can make them feel good, even if you ultimately can’t take on the task. Affirm that they’re working hard, or that they’re dealing with a challenging task. For instance, “You’re working so hard to make your sister’s wedding a success; I wish I could take organizing the shower off your hands, but I just can’t right now.”
3. Blame something objective.
Make your unavailability the fault of your schedule, your workload, other duties, or another external, objective circumstance that’s out of your control. And avoid the awkwardness of hearing “You’re busy this week? Then how about next week?” by adding, “I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
4. Blame something subjective.
Along the same lines as blaming an external circumstance, you can blame something internal and individual to you. For instance, blame your taste, your skills, your style. For example, “I’m going to have to say no to emcee-ing the recital; being onstage just isn’t my style.”
5. Turn it into a compliment.
Say no to the request, but turn it into a compliment for the requestor. “Thanks so much for thinking of me! That’s so nice of you.” Or, “I appreciate the opportunity—it was so lovely of you to ask me first.” Personally, I always try to do this when fundraisers stop me on the street—I won’t always donate, but I always tell them they’re doing important work and wish them the best of luck.
6. Stick to your guns.
Now we’re getting more advanced. Some folks will push you and ask more than once, or will pester you to try to wear you down. (Some of these people may have an age in the single digits; two of them live in my house).
In this scenario, it’s OK to use the classic Broken Record Technique — just give the same answer again and again when they ask again and again. You don’t have to be soulless about it — you can empathize with them and give them a hug, but don’t let your answer morph from “no” to “maybe” to “well, ok just one” to “fine go ahead.” Just stick to your original “no.”
7. Say no without apologizing.
This is graduation from ‘no’ school. Just like guilt, apologizing is for when you’ve done something wrong. It may seem like a fine line between not apologizing and being rude, but done well, “no” can be gracious and polite. Your requestor won’t even miss the “I’m so sorry.”
For instance, “What a lovely idea to make handmade decorations for the reunion! I have to admit I’m just not the woman for that job. But I can make a mean sangria.” Tah-dah! No apologies needed.
A final tip
Make your “no” swift and clear. Don’t delay your answer, say you’ll think about it, say maybe, or say yes and then back out. It may feel wrong to say “no,” but in the long run a clear, timely answer is more polite and in your requestor’s best interest.
For those of us who like to think we can do it all, starting to say “no” may come with a cost. We may not be the super mom, jack-of-all-trades, or I-can-always-count-on-you friend we’ve come to see ourselves as. But when we stop trying to do it all, oddly, we gain time, energy, and, best of all, respect.