2 Tips for Saying No—and Sticking To It

by Grace Judsonbetter-conversations-header

Have you ever found yourself in a long, involved explanation of why you can’t say “yes” to someone’s request? It’s a common tendency, especially if you feel pressured by the other person—for instance, if it’s your boss asking you to work late tonight!

We think we’re supporting our case when we elaborate on why we can’t do something. After all, if your boss knows you have to help your daughter study for her science exam, how could he possibly insist that you stay and work? Especially when you explain how she’s working hard to qualify for a scholarship to a prestigious summer STEM program!

The challenge, though, is that when you provide this type of detailed explanation for your “no,” you actually give the other person information they can use in formulating arguments against you. For instance, your overtime-demanding boss might have a college pre-med student son who would be delighted to stop by and tutor your daughter. Oops. Now you’re stuck!

Keep it simple

Instead of adding all that detail, simply state your position: “No, I’m sorry, I have a previous commitment.”

There’s nothing there for him to argue about.

Of course that doesn’t mean he won’t continue applying pressure—which will almost certainly increase your impulse to provide that long explanation. Don’t do it!

Ask a question

Instead, ask a simple question: “I’ve made a promise—is it unreasonable of me to want to honor that promise?”

Unless you’re dealing with someone completely unreasonable, the only possible answer to this question is “No, that’s not unreasonable.” In saying “no,” they’re actually agreeing with you that your desire to honor your commitment is actually quite reasonable.

You might wonder if it would make more sense to say something more positively-focused and oriented toward getting a “yes” answer, such as, “Is it reasonable of me to want to honor my promise?” The fact is that “yes” is much more difficult for someone to say than “no,” especially if they’re in any sort of debate or negotiation. “No” is more in line with how they feel in that moment—even though it’s actually an agreement in disguise.

Not sure about that? Just think of your own experience when you’ve felt manipulated into saying “yes” to something you didn’t really want to agree with. It’s not a real “yes,” and you probably felt annoyed and not very inclined to go along with what the other person wanted.

A bonus tip

In our example of being asked to work late, it’s helpful to have alternative options in mind. “I can’t work late tonight, but I could stay through lunchtime tomorrow,” for instance. Or, “I could come in early tomorrow morning instead.”

Now you’ve become a collaborative problem-solver instead of an obstinate employee. And that’s never a bad thing!


Grace Judson is an expert on communication, conflict transformation, and negotiation. She works with individuals, teams, and leaders to help them have the clean, clear, honest conversations that improve relationships and build careers. She can be reached on her website, www.gracejudson.com, and in her private Facebook group, the Connection Incubator, where she’s happy to answer questions and help solve communication challenges.

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