How to get better at saying “no” (yes, it’s possible)
Ever struggle with saying “no”? You’re not alone! Stephanie Nuzzo asked Professor Maurice Schweitzer and psychologist Ash King for their advice on how to set boundaries, and prioritise yourself by learning to say to the big “N-O” *aloud*.
Let me paint a picture for you.
Your best friend calls on a Thursday night and begins to beg you to go to a bar with her. The cocktails sound lovely and you enjoy your pal’s company, but you don’t feel like heading out. What do you say?
For many of us, the answer is probably something like, “That sounds like fun, but I have a huge day at work tomorrow, and I’m in the middle of doing my laundry, and I need to feed my dog, and look at that, I also have to wash my hair… Maybe another time?”
What you really want to say is: “No”. But for some reason, many of us (myself included) have a strange relationship with that two-letter word. Rather than seeing it as a succinct expression of disinterest, “no” has become this giant, unsightly creature that we avoid.
Somehow, the word has come to represent more than its meaning. For some of us, saying “no” brings stress and anxiety. So, we trade it for uncomfortable maybes, or worse, unenthusiastic yeses, instead.
Why is that? And is there a way to mend our relationship with refusals? I decided to speak with some industry experts to find out. Here’s what I learnt:
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A *lot* of us struggle with “no”
Maurice Schweitzer, Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, (who teaches a course on Improving Communication Skills on Coursera) explained that discomfort with “no” is not uncommon.
“Most people struggle to say ‘no,'” he said.
“Humans are primed to help others when they need it, and this has been a key evolutionary advantage for humans. In addition, many people fear negative repercussions for declining to help others.”
Women have the most challenging time with this, however
If you’ve ever wondered why it seems as though women have the most trouble saying no, it’s because they generally do. Professor Schweitzer explained that societally, “the expectations for saying ‘yes’ are higher” for women.
The sad truth of the situation is that from a young age, girls are (ever so subtly) discouraged from saying no. And it’s a cultural teaching that has a lasting impression.
Ash King, provisional psychologist at The Indigo Project and psychology researcher, shared that women are raised with “an expectation or pressure to be good, nice, likeable and acquiescent”.
“We don’t want to say no, because this goes against our core beliefs of what a ‘good girl’ or ‘good wife’ or ‘good daughter’ is seen to be,” she said.
“As a result, we become out of practice using our voice assertively and honouring and stating our needs.”
The absence of “no” can have a significant impact
An inability to tell people “no” has the power to influence many areas of your life. And this goes well beyond what you’re ordering for dinner on a Friday night (though that is one annoying example).
King explained that on a broader level, “it can encourage a more submissive communication style”. This often leads to difficulty expressing your needs or wants, because of a “fear of upsetting the other person”.
“This does not mean these needs and feelings evaporate,” King continued. “On the contrary, these unmet needs and unexpressed feelings often compound beneath the surface and eventually boil over into contempt and/or an erosion of self-worth and self-respect.”
There are ways to increase your comfort with “no”
If you want to work on your ability to dish out a denial, know that it is doable.
As King revealed, the best way to begin this process is by working on your boundaries. And if you plan on setting boundaries, you need a solid understanding of “who you are, what your values are, and what you need to best support yourself and the life you want”.
Once you do that, it’ll become much easier to recognise where you need to draw lines.
“This clarity will help inform your needs and allow you to develop an understanding of when other people’s requests or demands challenge or undermine your needs,” King said.
How you say “no” matters
One of the most challenging parts of telling someone “no” is using the word itself. It feels blunt, and will often be met with a question of “why not?”
King advised that the language we use in these settings is meaningful, but that doesn’t mean we need to be abrupt. “It’s hugely important to make ‘no’ a part of our vocabularies,” she said. But it’s worth remembering, “we can soften our language around it”. (Think, “thank you, but no”.)
This habit not only allows us “to become more comfortable saying ‘no’ when we need to, but also to be considerate and compassionate to the needs and expectations of others”.
In the end, a commitment to becoming better at saying no is a commitment to prioritising yourself (as cheesy as that may sound).
Learning to sit comfortably with turning something down is a powerful tool. It signifies your ability to recognise your needs and listen to them. Sure, there’s value in saying yes when the timing is right, but not at the cost of your happiness/headspace/health/relationships/any of the many other reasons you may decide to say no.
So, the next time your pal wants you to join them at a bar, and you’re not feeling it – stop, take a deep breath in and tell them “No, thanks”.