How to say no: your guilt-free guide

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Have you ever committed to something you didn’t want to do just because you didn’t know how to say no? 

I know I have. Saying no can be difficult. For some people, it almost feels impossible. The truth is, there’s an art to saying no, and while it can be a challenge to learn, once you master it, your life will get a lot easier. You’ll have more time and energy for the things you actually want to prioritize.

There are lots of ways to say no. Let’s talk about how to say no, when to say no, and what to do if someone pushes back.

Why does saying no matter?

I strongly believe that saying no is one of the most important forms of self-care. When you don’t say no to things, you put yourself in a position where you’re doing things you don’t want to do, things you don’t have time for, or even things that go against your morals and values. 

Here’s an example from my life. I’m a writer, and when I’m on a deadline, I have to say no to a lot of things. I spend a lot of time on weekends and after work writing, and saying no is a way to protect my time and continue working towards my goals.

I have to turn down social plans, extra responsibilities, and other commitments that take up a lot of the time I really need to spend writing. Sometimes I have to say no to things I really would enjoy doing, and sometimes I have to say no to favors people are asking me to do. Regardless of the reason, saying no and setting boundaries helps me stay focused on myself; my goals, my commitments, my priorities.

If you started saying no to more people, what would happen to your life? Would you have more time to spend with your family? More money to put towards your hobbies? More energy to put towards the things you really want to be doing?

When we say no, either in personal or professional situations, we are protecting ourselves from being overcommitted, overworked, and doing things that go against our values. This is true even if the other person is suggesting something that could be a good opportunity for you. 

For example, if your boss asks if you want to take on a new position at work, and you know it would advance your career but you also know the work life balance is going to be horrible, it’s okay for you to say no. Likewise, if you do take on that new position, you’re going to have to get comfortable with saying no to a lot of people in your personal life, because you’re going to need to protect the free time that you do have and use it in ways that are meaningful to you.

When to say no

Part of learning how to say no is learning when to say no. If you’re on the fence about something, here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if something is a good fit.

  • Is this in line with my goals?
  • Will saying yes prevent me from working on other important projects?
  • Does this sound fun or enjoyable?
  • Does this align with my values and beliefs?
  • Will saying yes help or hurt my mental health or feelings of burnout?
  • When it comes time to complete this commitment, will I regret saying yes?
  • Would I benefit from saying yes to this opportunity? If so, how?
  • What are the pros and cons of saying yes?
  • What is my schedule like right now? Do I have the capacity to take something else on?
  • What is my relationship with the person asking?
  • How will saying yes or no affect my day to day life?

It’s important to take the time to get some clarity on your goals, values, belief system, relationships, and patterns before you decide if you want to say no to something. This process can take a long time, so don’t expect to have a clear idea right away, but rather continue to work on asking yourself these questions as you learn more about how to say no.

Don’t make excuses unless you want solutions

No is a complete sentence.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from my previous boss was this: if you are saying no to something, don’t make excuses. While it may feel less awkward to give an excuse when saying no to someone, what you’re actually presenting them with is a problem that they can solve.

Here’s an example. Say someone asks you to pick them up from the airport, and you really don’t want to. Maybe you have a busy weekend and adding yet another thing sounds stressful, maybe you hate driving to the airport, maybe you just aren’t that close with the person. In this situation, it would be easy to say something like “I can’t, because I have an appointment at that time.” What if they offer to wait at the airport and be picked up after your appointment? What if they, god forbid, say they can change the time of your flight? It’s an extreme example, but it does happen, and if they say that, you’re either stuck picking them up from the airport or inventing yet another excuse. Either way, it’s awkward. 

Here’s a professional example. As a writer, I sometimes have people reach out to me and see if we can collaborate on a project. Oftentimes, those projects aren’t right for me. Just saying “no” feels awkward, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or complicate a relationship I value. However, when I’ve said things like “I don’t think I have the skills to complete this project,” it’s easy for the other person to counter with “what are you talking about, you’re a great writer!” If I say “I don’t have time to work on that right now because I’m working on another project,” the other person could easily say “that’s okay, why don’t we wait a few weeks and then get started?”

Here are some examples of how to say no without making excuses.

  • I’m not available to do that.
  • Unfortunately, that won’t work for me.
  • I’m afraid I can’t.
  • I won’t be able to fit that in.
  • This opportunity isn’t right for me, but thank you for thinking of me.
  • I’m flattered, but I can’t make that work.

These phrases cut out the excuses and don’t give pushy people anything to argue with. You may have heard the saying “no is a complete sentence.” Remember that not only is making excuses counterproductive, but you don’t actually owe anyone an explanation of how you want to spend your time and what boundaries you’re setting. You want to be polite and kind, of course, but it’s 100% possible to be both direct and polite at the same time.

Offering alternatives softens the blow

Sometimes, someone will ask you to do something that you can’t do, but you don’t want to shut the door entirely. This is where providing the reason for you saying no is actually helpful, because chances are you WANT to problem solve and make something work. Here are some ways you can offer alternatives that work for you.

  • I’m not available for coffee this weekend, but I’m free Thursday night if you want to get dinner.
  • That restaurant is out of my budget, but this other place has a great menu.
  • This month is slammed for me, but check in again next month and we can make something happen.
  • This project isn’t right for me, but I’d love to hear about other opportunities you have coming up.
  • That won’t work for me, but are there other ways I can help?
  • That pay rate is lower than I can accept, but if there’s flexibility in your budget, I’m happy to negotiate.
  • I can’t host the whole family for Thanksgiving, but if someone else can, I’m happy to make the pumpkin pie.
  • Unfortunately, I don’t have time to make something homemade, but what if I pick up takeout?
  • I can’t make it to your party, but I’d love to get together soon. What’s your schedule like next week?

How to say no

The most important thing about how to say no in a guilt-free way is to be direct, clear, and kind. If you’re not direct and clear, the other person might be confused and unsure about your intentions or desires. It’s important to be very clear about what’s happening so that they aren’t left wondering what’s going on.

Kindness is always important, and when you’re kind, you’ll feel less guilty about saying no. However, you’ll also feel less guilty when you start to understand how much your life improves once you get comfortable saying no and setting boundaries in general. Remember that saying no is not the same as being unkind. In fact, it’s much kinder than saying yes to something you can’t realistically do, something that will make you resent the other person, or something that will negatively impact your mental or physical health.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi


Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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