Confidently Saying "No" | Counseling | Therapy

Confidently Saying "No"

Richard (Rick) Snyderman , LPC, CADC, CSAT, NCC — Therapist, director of group therapy

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Confidently Saying “No”

Confidently saying no is one of the hardest-despite its small size-words to communicate in the English language. For many, the word “no” has many tentacles of interpretation, perceived consequences, plus fear and anxiety over perceived long-term repercussions. On the flip side, confidently saying no can also yield positive outcomes such as earning respect from others, demonstrating healthy boundaries and self-care, as well as the ultimate satisfaction from not engaging in activities you wish to avoid. There are many different ways of confidently saying no and managing the perceived or expected consequences in a way that honors your integrity and people to whom you are speaking with, rather than being passive-aggressive.

What is the “wrong way” to say no?

We may all be familiar with the “wrong way to say no” because it is likely you were on the other end of these methods or this would not be an issue for you. Some people grow up in households where the communication style of our caregivers may have been very aggressive, possibly abusive, or delivered seemingly without care or compassion. Being exposed to this type of communication style can cause people, especially young children, to cower in fear due to not knowing what, if anything, may be coming next. Questions such as, “Will I be punished or hit for a mistake or a request that is denied by my caregiver?” or “Does a ‘no’ from my caregiver imply that I am ‘stupid,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘fundamentally flawed’ for asking a question that leads to this roadblock answer?” illustrate the anxiety and confusion such interactions can foster. From these examples, it is easy to understand how communicating the word “no” could be loaded with many negative experiences, sometimes overtly, but most of the time covertly. It also highlights a common predicament: many people’s self-esteem relies on pleasing others all the time, even if they do not want to or feel good about it. This situation underscores the complex layers of impact that communication styles can have, shaping perceptions and self-worth in profound ways.

Saying no in ways that do not respect the other person is usually not very effective. In fact, most of the time, it leads to increased anger and resentment from the receiver. An aggressive or annoying tone, a quick quip that sounds short and uncaring, or bragging about how one is being “honest” by blatantly saying no in a harsh way to someone’s face are all examples of the wrong way to say no. This list does not include verbal and/or emotionally abusive statements which are obvious ways to not respect the receiver. Another not-so-effective way to communicate the word no is to do it in passive-aggressive ways. To be passive-aggressive is to communicate one’s feelings in indirect ways that allow personal responsibility for the behavior to be side-stepped or explained away. A behavior that is passive-aggressive is usually implemented to avoid direct confrontation with others, especially if the person initiating the passive-aggressive statement is trying to avoid saying “no” to something out of fear and/or anxiety. Some examples of passive-aggressive ways of saying “no” are listed below:

  • Ignoring or not responding to a request, either late or not at all

  • Being non-committal in your replies such as repeating vague mantras like: “We’ll see,” “I do not know,” or “Maybe.”

  • Agreeing to do something and then not following through with it due to some excuse

  • Playing dumb or presenting as though you “misunderstood” what was being asked of you

  • Acting like you did not hear the request or blatantly ignoring it.

  • Relying on rationalizations like beginner’s bias (i.e., I am new at this and therefore was not sure what I was agreeing with)

  • Deflecting the blame for not doing what was asked by focusing on something else that the requester did wrong when asking for something (i.e., He/she should know I am not qualified to do that).

  • Agreeing to do something and then changing your mind without informing the party that made the request (i.e., saying you can go out Saturday night and then something comes up and you just don’t show instead of politely communicating to the person asking you out that your plans changed).

  • Intentionally “ghosting” someone (i.e., not responding or communicating with them in any other way) when they reach out to you.

Although some of the above-named examples could appear harmless because they are not direct confrontations, they can actually do more harm than good. Believe it or not, most people prefer direct communication even if they may not like it, due to it appearing to be more honest and straightforward (compared to passive-aggression). The direct approach of communicating also allows for more trust because the receiver does not have to “second guess” what you are really thinking or feeling. A common rationalization people give for not being direct and honest is because they do not want to hurt the receiver’s feelings. In actuality, the receiver will likely be more hurt via the passive way of communicating because it leaves too much room for misinterpretation and loss of trust. Ironically, some of the time the indirect form of communicating the word “no” leads to the very outcome that the person may be trying to avoid…upsetting others.

Guidelines for How to Say No Confidently

Fear of confrontation, invalidation, or criticism makes up most of the reasons that people struggle with confidently saying “no.” The following tool can be used to look at the best way of communicating your regret based on the perceived consequences, or “stakes”

of the situation. Some guidelines on how to confidently say “no” for each category is also provided depending on the anticipated consequence of this assertion.

Anticipated lower stakes (or consequence) from saying no

Scenario: You are invited out with a group of friends and you do not want to go.

Apologize how you cannot do a specific task or fulfill a certain, minor request

Example: “Thank you for the invite, but I am not able to attend.”

Anticipated medium stakes (or consequence) from saying no

Scenario: Someone accuses you of ignoring a request that was made to you such as agreeing to clean the house or wash the dishes and you neglected to do it many times causing an argument (passive aggressive).

Empathize with the “requestor;” describe past efforts that you made to fulfill the request, and suggest alternative solutions

Example: “you are right. I know it is frustrating when you asked me to wash the dishes and clean the house many times and I did not do it and was not honest about why I was not doing it. I am sorry. Is it possible that we can make a different arrangement, such as taking turns, so that the job gets done and neither one of us are feeling frustrated for not having time to do it?”

Anticipated high Stakes (or consequence) from saying no

Scenario: Your boss asks you to do something you do not want to do, but it is a requirement of your job.

This is when you do not feel safe saying no. Explain your position and seek support from trusted others as a “reality check” before your response to be sure your thinking is clear. Follow the guidelines of empathizing with the receiver, finding the time, place, and tone to present your disagreement and offer other possible suggestions. Present an accepting attitude of how despite your opinion, the outcome may not change in which case you can take refuge in knowing that you made an effort to be heard and then do it anyway.

Example: "I understand the importance of [specific task] to our team and appreciate the trust you've placed in me to handle such responsibilities. However, I have some reservations about [briefly outline your concerns] due to [reasons]. I can see how this is critical from your perspective and the impact it could have on our project/team. Given my concerns, I wonder if we could explore some alternative strategies that might meet our objectives.

  • Remember that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Be sure not to present your opinion as “fact”

  • Come to the situation with an open attitude of collaboration. Do not be controlling or demanding.

  • You can begin the conversation by creating a non-confrontational setting first. For example, saying “can I speak to you privately about something?” or “There has been something on my mind that I would like to talk with you about, is there a good time when this can happen?”

  • Imagine being on the receiving end of a conversation in which someone needs to say no to you. Think about how you would want to receive it, including the tone you would use, and then do the same.

  • Be humble. Even though you may be voicing an opposition to something, after you share your thoughts, know that there may not be any change to the situation afterwards.

  • Manage your tone. This is probably the most important thing you can do. Despite the words we use when attempting to say no, the receiver will always be more influenced by how something is said than what is being said.

The imagined face-to-face conversation can certainly be intimidating especially if your personal experience was wrought with other people having gotten very defensive or even dismissive of your opinions. However, this is one of the most effective ways to be heard and understood. Talking on the phone would be the second best way. I would not recommend asserting yourself, especially in high stakes situations via sending a letter, email or text. These methods run the risk of your tone and position being misunderstood and since these channels of communication are not in real time, you will not have the chance to amend your intentions before the receiver responds. Confidently saying “no” is a trait that most people respect if it is said and done with a courteous tone to the receiver. The goal is to be heard and let the person know how you feel about something, whereas being passive-aggressive can lead to all sorts of misinterpretation. However, in life, we still have to do things we do not usually want to, but have to anyway (and hopefully) for a greater good!

If you would like to continue to work on ways to confidently say “no” and how to communicate with others in a more assertive way, feel free to schedule a counseling session with one of our therapists at The Center for Growth. You can call 215-922-5683 or book an appointment directly through our website

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