How to Say No and Not Feel Bad About It

Someone at work is asking you for something. You want to say no, but you can’t seem to get the word out. A million thoughts pop into your mind. What will they think of you? What if they get mad at you? What if it damages your relationship? You’re now tempted to say “yes” just to make the problem go away.

We’ve all been in such situations. We don’t want to rock the boat, but at the same time we must look out for our individual interests. We want to be team players, but we also need to assert our boundaries. This state of tension can be very stressful and lead to poor decision-making.

If you are tired of saying “yes” when you really want to say “no,” this article is for you. Jump in!

Take a step back

When facing threatening situations, our brain goes on autopilot. We don’t take time to think of the long-term consequences of our decisions but rather focus on dealing with the immediate threat. In such situations, saying “yes” is the more attractive option because it puts an end to the negotiation. Saying “no,” on the other hand, prolongs it.

The issue? Regret. I regularly meet bright professionals who accepted job offers without negotiating them, and, now that they regret their decision, want to know what they can do about it. The answer? Close to nothing. The second you say yes, your leverage is gone, and you get whatever you agreed to. Even if you haven’t signed anything yet, changing your mind will make you look unreliable.

You might be nervous, but it doesn’t mean your decisions need to be fear-based. We constantly resist urges to go the easy route, and we do that by thinking big picture. Consider the long-term consequences of saying “yes” before you commit to anything. Don’t hesitate to verbalize what it would mean concretely for you to say “yes.”

Appeal to common goals

When people ask us for something, saying “no” makes us feel like we’re standing in their way and creating problems. From our perspective, it looks like we have no way to win: we’ll experience regret if we say “yes” and we’ll engage in a conflict if we say “no.”

Imagine that your workload is full, and a colleague asks you to take on an additional project. You would usually say yes to avoid a conflict, but you are barely making it as it is. Building on the previous section, a short-term and a long-term perspective lead to completely different outcomes.

From a short-term standpoint, sure, saying yes will solve your colleague’s issue. What about the long-term? What if taking on this new project lowered your overall productivity? This would be a counterproductive decision that would go against your common goal of being productive. You won’t have to say “no” if you can show the other person that the request was a bad idea to begin with.

Offer alternatives

Aggressive negotiators have lots of tricks up their sleeve to get you to agree to a deal even though you don’t want to. One of these tricks is to make you feel like the only viable solution to the conflict is you saying yes. This is a lot of pressure to put on someone, and it usually works.

For example, somebody who is asking you for a favor at work might tell you that you are the only person who can help them; nobody else is available or has the right skills. Here, as well, it puts you in the awkward situation of being in the way of someone else getting what they want.

If someone portrays you as the unique solution to their problem, don’t take their word for granted. Ask them about their alternatives. “What do you mean nobody else is available? What about X? Did you call Y? Z is coming back on Monday, what did they say?” If you can demonstrate that there are alternatives, you’ll be a lot more comfortable saying no.

Take time to think

Aggressive negotiators know that the longer you can think about an unfavorable deal, the more likely you are to say no. It’s in their interest to make it seem like the situation is an emergency and that there is no time to think further about it. Like a used-car salesman negotiation technique, it often works.

There are very, very few situations that would require you to give an answer right away. The other person might want you to, but it doesn’t mean you have to. If you feel torn between saying yes or no, then you need to give the situation some thought.

When I am faced with difficult decisions, my father always advises me to give it 3 days and revisit it. Your mind will make the decision on its own; all you need is to let the dust settle so you can think about it more clearly. Don’t force any thoughts, just go with your regular activities and let the right decision emerge naturally.

Find the right words

The last piece of advice I have for you relates to language. One of the main reasons people get paralyzed when they want to say “no” is that they don’t know how to say it. They worry they will pick the wrong words and escalate the tension.

I am a big believer in preparation. When my students worry about saying something during a negotiation, I always ask them to write what they intend to say down in advance and memorize it. If you’re not sure what to write, that’s even more reason to do it before you’re on the spot.

Try different options until you find one that feels right to you. Keep in mind, however, that your “no” must be clear. Being ambiguous about whether you agree or not is just kicking the can down the road. Be polite, considerate, and crystal clear.

What now?

We have identified several strategies you can use to avoid saying “yes” when you really want to say “no.” Learning takes time, so be patient with yourself. You’ll get more comfortable with practice.

Talking of practice, I’m inviting you to join the Master Negotiators Facebook Group. My goal is to create a community where you can participate in negotiation simulations, ask for advice, and get support.