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If you've ever forced yourself to attend yet another event you didn't want to go to, accepted a date with someone you weren't interested in, or embarked on another project you didn't have the bandwidth for, chances are you haven't learned how to say no.
Politely refusing a situation isn't easy—especially when you’re uninterested in managing the PTA bake sale, welcoming unruly guests into your home, or turning down a request from a friend you haven't seen in a while. And establishing boundaries is even tougher if you have to deny a request made by loved ones or a superior at work.
But, of course is is possible to learn how to say no without feeling guilty—it just takes a bit of skill. According to psychologists and husband-and-wife duo Eric Haseltine, PhD, and Chris Gilbert, PhD, doing so begins by shifting your perspective. “We value ourselves more when we believe we’re assertive and creative, which makes others value us more in return,” Haseltine says. Translation: Sometimes, in the long run, saying no (without being rude) actually earns you more respect than a yes does.
Learning to say no starts with paying attention to your body.
Gilbert, whose research explores the ways stress and anxiety manifest physically, emphasizes the importance of being in tune with your body’s reaction when an ask comes your way. “If the body is rebelling, that’s an indication that you’ve said yes too much,” she says. Look out for tense muscles, stomach pain, fatigue, and a scratchy throat—signs that saying no may be what’s right.
Take your time before turning down a request.
Don’t give in to that natural knee-jerk inclination to say yes, advises Julianne Wurm, EdD, a learning specialist and author of Working in the Reggio Way. Instead, mull over the ask by saying you’ll think about it or can have a response in 24 hours. It’s easier to politely decline the next day. “Even if you can bite the inside of your cheek for 30 seconds, it’ll give you a moment to think and offer a boilerplate response you have prepared for these situations,” Wurm says.
Consider putting it in an email.
If saying no verbally is a challenge, you may be able to craft a more cordial response in writing. An email is a solid workaround.
Sometimes being polite means finding a different way to say "no."
By getting into the rhythm of declining small tasks more regularly, you’ll get used to understanding where your boundaries begin. A respectful way of uttering no? “I really appreciate your offer, but it’s not going to work for me.” Your comfort level will increase over time.
Remember, refusing someone isn't personal.
Always keep your responses lighthearted and decline with a line that isn’t specific to your relationship with the person. “You’re not hurting people’s feelings,” Wurm says.
In professional situations, don't be afraid to ask for help.
This one’s specific to work relationships. If you're fielding requests from left to right, tell your manager it’s overwhelming, and put the onus on them to delegate tasks to other people on your team.
Coming up with another solution is often the nicest approach.
Gilbert and Haseltine suggest offering an answer to your no. Take this example: If family members request to extend their stay at your home, rather than harshly shut down the idea, ask how you can help them find more suitable accommodations. Instead of thinking of situations as all or nothing, meet in the middle.
You can change your mind and still feel good about it.
If you were caught off guard and accidentally agree to something like planning a friend’s bridal shower, you can circle back and decline—by doing so within a few days or less. Explain that you responded out of haste and have realized you can no longer commit to their ask.
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