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How To Say No Politely (While Honoring Yourself)

How to Learn to Say No When You Care About Other People’s Feelings but Want to be True to Yourself

When I got pregnant for the first time I got way better at saying no.

I loved my newfound clarity about what was and wasn’t allowed into my life and I knew I wanted to hold onto it even after the baby was out.

So, I’ve been practicing ever since.

For me, saying yes has never been a stretch. It’s the “no’s” that have tripped me up.

If you’re a recovering “yes-aholic,” too, read on.

Here are my go-to strategies for saying a clear “no,” which is a gift to you and those around you. Because remember:

Saying yes just to please someone else isn’t a true yes. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for you.

Don’t Say You’ll Do Things that You’re Not Going to Do

A woman walked up to me and asked me if I would review some of her work to give her my feedback. She was delightful, and I’m sure the piece she wanted my eye on was equally wonderful. However, I knew it would sit in my inbox, and I would delay looking at it. And it would bug me. And cause mental friction. And after all the delaying and hemming and hawing, if I did get around to reviewing it, I wouldn’t give it my best attention.

Why? Because it’s not a priority for me. Because I have several of my own projects that are requesting my immediate attention. Because it felt like a no. (By the way, something feeling like a no is reason enough. Those other justifications are nice if they’re true, but they’re not necessary.)

A no is a no is a no. No reason required.

In the past I would have told her to email me and I’d see what I could do. Then I might have let her down over email.

Instead, I told her the truth in real time. I said that, while I loved what she was up to, I didn’t want to tell her I would do something that I know deep down isn’t a priority for me right now. It felt uncomfortable to say, but I said it politely and kindly. It felt freeing, too. We both knew where we stood. I wished her the best and gave her some other resources she might find helpful.

Take home message: if someone asks you to do something and you immediately know that you won’t, don’t say that you will. It doesn’t serve you and it doesn’t serve them. Keep it clean, people.

There’s No Need to Give a Reason

Your no does not require justification. Here’s a great sentence you can use, inspired by my friend Andrea Equihua:

“Thank you for your invitation/offer/request. I’m not able to do it at this time, but if that changes, I’ll let you know.”

Gracious. Kind. Simple. Clear. Non-apologetic.

You don’t have to apologize for not being able to fit into someone else’s agenda. You don’t have to give 57 reasons why it doesn’t work. You can say it politely while still giving a simple no.

Give Yourself Time

There are moments when someone asks you to do something, and you don’t know whether or not you can or want to.

There are also moments when you’re caught off guard when someone asks you to do something in person, and a direct “no” feels like too much of a stretch. (This is often the case when your “no” muscles are still developing.)

These are moments when asking for 48 hours to get back to the person is ideal.

They feel acknowledged. You don’t feel cornered.

Then you can give yourself a moment to check in while you’re not in their presence and get clear.

You can also take the time to compose a response that’s polite, kind, and respectful if it is indeed a no. When you’re just starting out practicing saying no, coming up with this kind of response in the moment can be quite challenging. Giving yourself a day or two helps you get your wits about you.

If It’s Not a Hell Yes…

You’ve likely heard this one before, but it’s one I remind myself of nearly daily, so it’s worth repeating.

If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.

That’s it. It works the same on choosing where to eat dinner as it does who you’re going to marry.

The Gift of Your No

The gift of your no is that everyone in your life knows that when you do say yes, it’s real. They know where they stand with you. It puts everyone at ease.

And you honoring your “yes’s” and your “no’s” means that you get to trust yourself more and more, each and every day. Since you’re the only one you’ll be spending your entire life with, that’s a pretty big deal.

May we all have the cojones to say no when we mean no and yes when we mean yes. And may we all have the courage to keep the volume turned up on that voice that always knows. It serves us, and it sure serves the world.

Want to practice saying no together? I’m hosting The NO Challenge and we start in a couple of weeks. For 8 days, we’ll say no to 1 thing a day and by the end of it, you won’t even recognize yourself you’ll be so liberated.

Join The NO Challenge.

Over to You:

Have you ever said yes when you really meant no? What did it feel like? What are your “saying no” strategies? This is a growth edge for many in our community, so please share your best tips in the comments below!

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  • This keeps coming for me around bartering! It doesn’t feel right anymore and 4 out of 5 times, it ends up being a waste of my time, and people on the other end have minimal growth because they aren’t valuing the work. BUT there is that 1 of 5 where it does help someone who can’t afford it. I have started only taking on one sliding scale a month. This is helping in that for the people that want it have to wait… And there is something about testing this patience that allows the not so serious people to go away. I don’t have a win yet, but I am getting there. Saying no is my work this month!

  • Joseph Joiner

    nos are hard to make and live with.

  • Kimmy

    My strategy is to remember the times I said yes when I wanted to say no, and how crappy I felt! That makes it a lot easier to stick with no. I appreciate your suggestions on how to say no with kindness. I tend to be very blunt, especially if what I’m conveying is a challenge for me.

  • Kate, I LOVE this. Learning how to say no in a way that is gracious and kind, but still lets you respect and honor your own boundaries, has been SUCH a tough part of my own journey. Honestly, I’ve tried versions of Andrea’s phrasing, and most of the time it is so wonderful. Honestly, there are times when people will still be upset with me — they want me to do something that I just can’t do and still feel okay. But I’ve also gotten to the point where I decided — much like you said — that it’s not good for them (or me) for me to say yes when it’s truly a “no”. Because then I just feel depleted and resentful! I love your posts :)

  • Wow! The timeliness of this particular post is fabulous. Thank you Kate, and many congrats on your joyful pregnancy. Her is what comes to mind: ‘No is a complete sentence.’I certainly did not invent that, yet it sums it up for me simply and elegantly.

    Love what you say about if it is not a hell yes…. It’s a no. So why do we squirm with that, like we might miss something , like it is going to change how we really feel. What I have noticed and offer to your five, Kate is your first thought is often the most true and sometimes the most obvious. If your weighing in as the say, just feel what that phrase does to you. For me it makes the whole thing, deciding, heavier, clear sign it is likely a clear no, so say it.

    Thank you Kate, love your clarity and ease in expressing it. Bravo!

  • joy

    THANK YOU, just exactly what I needed!

    • Thank you for this very important post Kate! This is a prevalent conditioned way of being in our culture and in many organizations. The thing is – when we aren’t truthful there are so many more breakdowns that follow. When it isn’t safe to say ‘no’ in your job, everyone suffers. I would add that going through menopause is another time where not being able to say no has a bigger cost on your holistic health…trust me.

      • Kate Northrup

        I so agree that when we say no it leads to breakdowns later on. And so true about menopause being another right of passage where saying no is crucial!

  • Mieke

    Hi Kate & everyone,

    What a great post. Thank you for that.
    I’m getting much better at saying no, but it is still very much a process.

    I also want to give an example from receiving a yes, while no is really meant. I’m getting married in a few weeks and I have a bunch of friends helping out with baking cakes. And one friend, who I know has poor boundaries, says “yes I will because I promised”, but she keeps on complaining how ridiculous busy and stressed she is. She’s clearly not happy and neither am I, because I don’t want her to stress/burn out and I’m now not sure I can rely on her!
    Such an example of if it isn’t a hell yes, it’s a no!

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on saying no in a kind & truthful way ! As a mother of 4 and now a grandmother of 9, I have learned over the years to yes or no – depending on my priorities , with no guilt . It took awhile to get to that point; however.

  • DS

    Really value this post.

    A challenge I’ve taken on for myself this week, specifically, is “not over-doing it.”

    This is a general exercise, and it relates to not going overboard in virtually anything if I don’t want. No more compensatory behavior in any way.

    That means:

    – No extra emoticons unless I truly feel that way
    – No overexplaining anything
    – No feeling the need to give in-depth or even real-time replies to things
    – Just no.

    lol, it’s been wonderful. I get to save my energy for things that matter more to me than any of that.

    So I value this post. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Great blog! My problem is setting priorities among the many things I love to do. I like to think this problem is compounded by having a splash or scatter natal astrological chart. I have interests everywhere! Your suggestion to “give it time” is probably the best for helping me sort through our priorities. Now if you have a suggestion to help my analytical mind make a clear decision among possible priorities, I’ll be all set!

    • Kate Northrup

      Jane – I totally get this one! My top tip for prioritizing is feeling which one feels like a yes in my body. Which one do I feel the most excited by? Which one makes me feel expansive? Which one feels the most energizing? I go with whichever one it is!

  • Susan

    This is so important. Honesty is one of my core values in myself and in those I choose to be in relationship with. If I am not giving an honest yes I don’t feel good inside. If someone says yes to me when they really want to say no I can feel it and really do not like it at all. If I am ever unsure I say ” Let me get back to you.” This way I have time to check in with my gut. Works every time!

  • Thank you for this post, I’m happy to get this reminder and will share it with others.

    Sending love and light for you, Mike and the baby-in-your-belly.

  • Chase

    I love this: If it’s not a “HELL YES!” it’s a no. I’m a recovering yes-aholic and this is just resounding to me!

  • Great blog Kate. So true. I think of it as “Giving the gift of NO”. I love the phrase “If it’s not a hell yes…it’s no.) Asking for time to respond is a great strategy. Sometimes there is just too much going on in the moment to make a decision you want to follow through with. Thanks for your thoughts. I’m with ya! :-)

  • A friend and I were catching up recently. I shared with her the process for one of my new services that really lights me up. She directly asked if she could barrow it for her services. I twinged and said something like I guess, feeling very on the spot. What I would like to say is, no, experiment and find your own method. Building those “No” muscles!

  • Betz

    As always, your posts are inline with the current thoughts flowing through my own mind. I just want to tell you, I love you Kate!

  • Roe

    Your email discussing this issue and link to the blog came at such an appropriate time for me. I have struggled with this all my life and have tried to figure out why this is so hard for me. And I must admit that sometimes I think I can do more than I can do and don’t stop and think things through before I say yes. So, I liked the suggestion you gave about telling the person you will get back to them. I also needed reminding that I don’t have to explain why I am saying no. The phrases you provided are great. And unless someone has poor boundaries, they won’t badger me for the reasons. A big problem I have however is knowing that I need to say “no”.
    Often I have a hard time listening to my gut in these situations. I feel I would say “no” more if I was able to tap into my true feelings. As a person said above I also say yes sometimes because because I fear I might miss something. Thank for your insightful and clear message.

  • Helen

    If I looked back at every setback (some heartwrenching ones!) I have caused myself (never mind the growth involved), the reason clearly is my inability to say no and to communicate that to the ones concerned so they don’t take it as a yes. I have been recently saying no without being apologetic or guilty about it and every affirmation in that direction is always welcome. Thank you for letting me read this. Much love, light, and happiness to you, the baby and your family and everything else that inspires you. Hugs!

  • Jackie

    Saying no started in earnest when I was in my 20s. It was new to me and it felt weird at first and then it started to feel easier and empowering.
    I am now in my 40s and I say no, mostly in kind ways, when it I know that I am not going to do the thing asked of me. Once in a while, people do not accept a kind no so I have to get more direct with them and say no in more ways than one. It’s better than saying yes and leading them on and me feeling like a jerk.

  • Such genius in a short simple sentence: “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” #wordstoliveby

  • Kate I love this article and completely agree with you. What I’ve found is that people don’t have a problem with me saying “no” because I don’t have a problem with saying it and I do it with kindness. I stopped being around “needy” people and also gave up my need to rescue. When I did this it was surprising how the “needy” people stopped showing up in my life!

  • I just happened upon this at just the perfect time! I run a small cake business out of my home. The number one skill I constantly need to work on is saying “no”.
    After numerous “all-nighters” because I overbooked myself or missed family events because “Mom has a cake to do”, I’m finally learning how to graciously draw some boundaries. I really appreciate (and am going to post at the top of my appointment book!) your suggestion for how to kindly say “no” without explanation or apology.
    I often feel the need for an explanation. I,then usually say,”Due to this fact,I would not be able to give your(cake/dessert/etc) the time and energy I feel it deserves. However, might I suggest….”
    Your way is much more simple and straightforward. I like it! Thank you so much!

  • Thank you for this! You actually inspired me to write a post about my wedding and how I’ve been hiding it from people in my life, because I was afraid to admit it is an intimate wedding and many of our friends will be not be invited. Something about your post gently reminded me to “own my truth,” and I did. So…thank you for that! Keep it up, Kate!

  • Gillian

    Dear Kate, please put all points on one slide/picture so that we can “pin it’, use it as a screensaver etc. as a reminder :)

  • I like the Hell yes. I should think about this more. But, I often just say NO to everyone but me. Not good I know, but I decided to start being selfish and take more time for myself this year. I spent so much time on others last year that I think a good no is justified. Thanks for letting me know it’s okay :)

    • Kate Northrup

      I think it’s GREAT that you started with no to everyone else except for you. That will evolve over time to let more space in for others but its a great start!

  • Ok just had to say how much I love this. I am getting better at it but this was just so well written and clear and wanted to say gracias!
    Both my husband and I struggle with this and it’s painful to watch someone you love agree to do stuff when they are just avoiding disappointing someone. I remember hearing someone say the pain of not saying yes to yourself is worse than the discomfort of saying no to someone else. I guess the key is being able to withstand that discomfort rather than go to the default of saying yes when we say no. More comfortable to do in the short run but super painful in the longrun.

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