How to Say No


Sometimes we confuse saying No with selfishness. But Sheila O’Connor says that by being more assertive, we live a more stress-free life.

Saying No and setting limits may not be easy, but doing or saying nothing when the situation demands it also has its price. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel uncomfortable or that you are being used as an emotional dumping ground, your silence for the sake of the peace is costing you more than you realise.

Maria Arapakis, an American psychologist and business consultant, says that “it’s important to realise that you are responsible for the way people treat you and for teaching others how they should treat you. If you simply keep quiet, you imply consent.”

Let’s say you feel uncomfortable dealing with a co-worker who takes credit for your idea, a tyrannical boss, a house guest who outstays her welcome or a couple who continually whispers behind you at the theatre. You can learn to speak up without appearing aggressive or disagreeable.

Initially, when such events happen, we tend to let things slide, assuming it’s a one-time occurrence. When it happens again and especially when it’s repeated over and over, it can seem harder to say anything because you’ve let it go on for so long.

But even in such situations, it’s still better to speak up. In fact, in any situation, you don’t have to respond to the incident immediately. It’s often more effective if you spend time thinking things over, considering your options and then confronting the offending party. And it’s important to consider your options in each situation. We too often go to extremes when we try to be assertive.

Take the example of a friend of mine who had a new neighbour move into the flat next to hers. Most evenings he would come home late and put on his music so loud that it would wake up those living in nearby units. One person cursed him in the hallway, while my friend considered moving out. She also ignored him when he greeted her in the lift, hoping he would get the hint. It wasn’t until she went to his place, introduced herself and told him that his music kept her awake, that things changed. It turned out that he hadn’t even realised he had been playing his music so loudly.

How To Increase Your Success When You Set Limits And Say ‘No’

  • Assume the best and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
  • If someone has upset you, try to ask smart questions before you go on the offensive. “Were you aware that the report was supposed to be finished yesterday?” gives the other person a chance to share their point of view.
  • Maintaining eye contact throughout the encounter will convey truthfulness. It’s useful to note that most people look away when they lie. Even if you’re not confident, act as if you are and this will increase your confidence.
  • Always use “I” statements to convey your message. Tally Tripp, a Washington, DC, psychotherapist, says, “Using ‘I’ statements lets you express how you feel without throwing accusations and starting a fight. It shows you’re responsible for your feelings while at the same time allowing the other person to explain the reasons they acted the way they did.
  • If you get opposition, don’t abandon your position. Instead, use more strength. For example, to a colleague who interrupts constantly, you might say, “I’m not finished with what I’m doing right now and I’d like to continue doing it. Then I’ll be happy to give you all the time you need.
  • Do not get into a discussion about side issues. For instance, if someone makes an offensive remark to which you state your objections and you’re greeted with an, “Oh, you really don’t have a sense of humour, I was only kidding,” you can say, “It may seem funny to you, but I don’t appreciate that kind of talk.” Otherwise, you could go on forever discussing whether it is or isn’t a joke, which will get you nowhere.
  • Don’t lose sleep over those incidents where, no matter how much you set limits or say No, you just can’t seem to win. As Arapakis says, “Do what you can, learn what you can from every situation, then let the matter go.”
  • But do follow up with the consequences you’ve stated.

Areas For Boundaries

When it comes to setting limits and saying No, Arapakis mentions that often there are two different—and ineffective—ways of setting limits that we need to be aware of. One is holding back and the other is being too forceful.

Holding back

If you often let things pass, you can suffer internally. And the longer you wait, the more likely you are to give yourself a thumping headache. Another form of holding back is to set your limits too meekly, such as, “I sort of have a problem with . . . .” Your body language will probably come across as non-assertive and you won’t get the change you need.

Being Too Forceful

On the other hand, you may be guilty of setting limits too quickly without waiting for the other person to give an explanation. Or you may use a condemning, blaming or abrasive manner and set your limits too harshly: “Your room is a pigsty. Clean it up now—or else!

While most of us are a mixture of these styles, it’s also possible that we flip-flop between extremes. It isn’t unusual for that tyrant boss to be a mouse at home or for the smiling, Yes-I-can-do-that-for-you, office worker to take out her suppressed anger on her family. Some of us even change depending on who we’re talking to or what the situation is.

Arapakis advises against allowing even love to let things slide. “Setting limits is a specific and critical form of interpersonal honesty. You set limits in relationships when you express your position or feeling, draw the line and ask for what you want when you’re not getting it. It is a way of expressing your individuality and it shows that you respect yourself. You can be true to yourself and still hold successful relationships. Otherwise, you end up like a pleasing machine which bends and moves to other people’s whims and says things just to win favour.”

Limits are in themselves neither good nor bad and people have differences in their sense of boundaries. For example, you might guard your privacy while your friend thinks there should be no secrets between you. In these situations, you’ll need to set limits that will make you feel comfortable.

What’s important is to realise that in any situation that makes you unhappy, you need never be a powerless victim. Rather, be assertive. Set your boundaries and follow through on them!

Tips for Setting Limits

if you’ve been afraid to speak out on a matter that bothers you, try rehearsing the situation in your mind or with a friend. go over the best- and the worst-case scenarios, especially concentrating on the solution that will build up a posi- tive state of expectancy. When you make your assertions, keep your voice as level as possible. As author Ken Keyes says in How to Enjoy Your Life in Spite of It All, “You should ask for things in your life with the same nonchalance you would use in asking for the salt and pepper. What’s more, the low-key approach will more likely get you the desired result than using a lot of emotion”.


Use phrases such as “I’m not comfortable with your going through my mail without asking me first.”

If the first phrase is ignored, restate the issue with more force: “I mean it; I feel very unhappy about the way you took the liberty of opening my mail!

In stage three, you should introduce the consequences of the person’s continued action: “If you don’t stop doing this, I’ll have no choice but to have my private mail sent to my office,” or “If you don’t respect my wishes, we’ll have to end the relationship.”

When all else fails, you must carry through on your word, as Arapakis says, “How can you expect others to take you seriously if you don’t take yourself seriously?

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