How to say No with finesse

Many of us find it very difficult to say “no” when we need to. We might be scared of conflict, of being judged or even of loss of that relationship or opportunity. However, saying no is a vital part of healthy living. It lets others know where our boundaries are and is a form of self-respect. If we don’t say no when we need to, we risk harm to ourselves, others and the loss of respect of others. Each time you just go along with something against your own better judgment, you set up an expectation in other people that you will continue in the same vein in future. It is best to start setting the right expectations and boundaries now for all of your relationships in life.

Here are some guidelines to help you to say “no” the next time you need to.

Let’s imagine situation that your boss has asked you to work late every night this week, when you have other personal obligations.

  1. Never say “no” in anger or frustration. This tends to escalate the situation and creates a “me against you” scenario. Both parties are likely to dig their heels in, making a successful resolution more difficult. Rather wait until you can state your case with composure and firmness. If necessary, say, “I need a bit of time to think about this” and then return when you are ready to face the situation on an even keel.
  2. Compassionately state your understanding of the other person’s situation. As a general rule, other people are not trying to harm you. They are acting from their own best intention to get the best for their own lives, whatever that might be. Make an effort to stand in the other person’s shoes and understand with compassion why they are making this request or behaving in this manner. Verbally express your understanding of the other person’s position to let them know that you see their point of view.  Our example, “I understand that you want the best for this company and that you feel you need me to do a bit of extra work every night this week.”
  3. Clearly state your position. This is the key to help the other person understand your position. Be firm but calm using “I” sentences, not “You” sentences. Focus on your own situation and don’t be judgmental. So for our example, rather say, “I have some personal commitments this week on Tuesday and Wednesday that are important and cannot be postponed”, as opposed to, “You are being unreasonable! You know that I have a family at home and other obligations!”
  4. Clearly state what you can and can’t do. You need to let the other person know what you can offer them and what you can’t. This is the time to set your boundaries. It is important to be clear, precise and firm.  This is not the time to use “maybe”, “I’m not sure”, “perhaps I can…” The other person needs clarity on where you stand and where they stand. In our example, you could say, “I can only stay on an extra half hour on Tuesday and Wednesday evening, but I am willing to come in at 8 am instead of 8.30 am. I will be happy to work an extra two hours on Thursday evening.”
  5. Don’t let it turn into a fight. If the other person becomes angry, stay calm and clearly repeat your position. If they still remain angry say, “I think we need a bit of time to cool off. Can we talk about this a bit later please?” Whatever you do, don’t get angry with the other person, you are jeopardising the successful resolution of the situation. If need be, just remove yourself from the situation until the other person calms down. Remember to use “I” sentences” not “You” sentences.
  6. Be honest when saying no. It is important to stay in your integrity when putting up your boundaries. Be true to yourself, your needs and your situation. Don’t use “no” as a weapon to manipulate others or situations. Other people will soon realise that you are not being authentic and will lose respect for you and your boundaries.
  7. Be consistent. Being consistent in the way you set boundaries and what your boundaries are is also important. It is unsettling for other people and damaging to your relationships if you keep changing the parameters of your boundaries. For example, if when you take a job, you tell your boss that you cannot do weekend work, then stick to that. It will be confusing for your boss, if without discussing a change in your situation, you start taking work home on the weekends.  If for whatever reason your boundaries have changed, then let the other person know so that they know where they stand. E.g. “I now have help on a Saturday morning, so if need be I can work 2-3 hours extra on the weekend.” Being consistent will naturally happen if you stay in your integrity.

Happy boundary setting!


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