It seems as though the pressure is always on to commit to all sorts of things. A twice-weekly walk with a dieting neighbour, a monthly book club, a fundraising initiative, a workplace mentoring programme, a six-week internship for an uppity post-grad (you’ve met her, you know), a winey (whiney) Friday night download with a draining sort-of friend. (You get to bed at 3am and spend the whole weekend exhausted.) Yes, those clean white pages in the diary are just waiting to be obliterated by black ink as commitments are entered, teeth gritted, and thousands of fresh, resentful martyrs created. While everyone else seems to be making a virtue out of saying YES to everything, we are advocating a return to NO for the already over-committed. The advice below will help you deliver a guilt-free negative response – with a smile – while the women we canvassed reveal their own ways of saying no.
If you are constitutionally incapable of saying “I would rather gnaw off each of my fingers than take your frightening child home with me after school / attend a meandering meeting of your toothless committee / put in a good word for you with someone I don’t even know that well”, you need a new response. The new you will say, “I’m so sorry, I can’t do that.” That’s it. No defensive explanations to be parried pronto. No makey-uppy excuses whose script you’ll fumble. No more over-commitment, over-stretching, over-promising. No more favours to be returned, either, obviously. Possibly no more friends. But with all your reclaimed leisure time you can always drum up a few new ones.
Saying no to your boss doesn’t actually result in demotion, and might mean he or she suddenly realises how full your plate is. Saying no to your partner doesn’t mean your three-year-old will have to stump home alone from creche, and might mean he or she is magically able to wrap up that meeting well before 6pm. Saying no to drinks with a pal whose politics make you grind your teeth to rubble doesn’t mean they’ll end up drinking gin in the bath, weeping and friendless. Well, it might, but hey. Saying no – unless it’s the only word ever barked from your lips – won’t make you the Least Popular Girl in the School. The older we get the easier we should find it to refuse – gracefully, if possible – and as we do so, our lives fall gradually back under our own control, which is right where they should be.
Diversions can help, if you’re skilled at them. We all have a friend who trails her nails along the bookshelves and says “Oh, can I borrow this?” a couple of times every visit. It’s not that she’s the spine-cracking, coffee-staining, margin-noting type of reader, but she’s scatty. By the time she gets round to it in six months or a year she’ll have lost it. So we will say “I’d quite like to hold on to that, but let me get a copy of it for you.” A week later we can text her from a bookshop and ask her if she still wants it. By then she’s usually not doing raw food any more, or has realised she doesn’t enjoy short stories, or can’t remember who you are anyway.
Nothing succeeds like duress and some people just won’t take no for an answer. The gentle approach is useless for really insistent people who wear you down with a series of calls, texts or emails, just not getting the message. There are some people who are just very difficult to say no to, even when you absolutely know from experience that saying yes will only lead to trouble. These types have to be resisted at all costs because they are really just excellent sales people, intent on bending everyone else to their will. In their case, it probably has to be simply “no, I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” But stay on your toes as constant attrition means, in a weakened state, you might succumb. We spoke to women who have learned the hard way …
– THE PEOPLE PLEASER –
“I would love to be able to say no but can’t handle people being disappointed in me. I am terrible at lying so engage in various forms of diversion. One of my friends wanted a very big favour from me – she likes to make people feel unreasonable for saying no. I tried avoiding her for two weeks but finally had to come clean (by text) and say I didn’t want to do it. But then I had to get another friend to read out her response to me. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it if she was annoyed. I probably would have caved.”
– A FIRM APPROACH –
“I’m trying to adopt the Queen’s motto … ‘Never complain. Never explain.’ And it’s interesting when you politely decline in a definite way without feeling the need to explain or justify yourself, people seem to simply accept a no without any difficulty. If they feel there’s wriggle room, on the other hand, it’s game over!”
– THE GALLIC SHRUG-OFF –
“I have a French friend who is really good at saying no. In a sombre voice full of regret, she says quite slowly – almost hesitatingly: ‘Oh no, I’m not at all sure that I could do that’ (sometimes adding ‘At the moment/with the other commitments I have’). Then she continues: ‘But let me think about it’ – still sounding so doubtful that you just know it isn’t a runner.”
– THE HALF NO –
“I’ve always been someone who finds it hard to say no, particularly when faced with a direct question on the phone. However I have recently found a method that helps. Just ensure that you use some form of negative phrase in your reply. ‘Can you babysit tomorrow night?’ ‘I don’t think that should be a problem but I’ll let you know.’ ‘Are you free to join us for a 1970s theme party on Saturday?’ ‘I don’t think we’re doing anything else but I’ll get back to you.’ This leaves enough of a question mark to allow you to decide what you want to do in your own good time. Do it for any request. It takes a bit of practice, but it works, and you keep your friends into the bargain because you don’t appear to be saying no.”
– THE THREE-QUARTERS NO –
“I have a friend who is quite good at what might be termed the three-quarters no – a sort of half-baked compromise. No, I’m afraid I can’t do that … but what I could do is x’ – the x being some small gesture of appeasement. Or a deferral, until later. ‘I’m afraid I can’t do that now – but I could certainly try to do it in a month or two … ’”
– THE ELEGANT OPT-OUT –
“I say something like ‘That is such a good idea and I know it will be wonderful and so much fun but this time I will have to miss out as I am up to my eyes in preparing for an event’ or ‘I would love to but my schedule is booked up at the moment. How about we make a plan for another time?’”
– THE WORKPLACE NO –
“I’m rubbish at saying no. But I have one particular colleague who has turned no into an art form. I call it the ‘You First’ automated response:
Q: ‘Excuse me. I have a problem, and I need your help. Can you do X?’
A: ‘Of course, but don’t you think it would be much better for your own professional development if you did it? If I did it for you, it would rob you of an opportunity to achieve! Tell me, what is the particular challenge for you here?’”
– A CONVENIENT TRUTH –
“I’ve devised a line which means I never have to tell a porkie pie. When I’m not working, any spare moment / evening / day I have I want to spend with family and friends so I say: ‘I’m terribly sorry but I have a previous family engagement I can’t miss.’ It’s the truth.”
– LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN –
“I have real trouble saying no and end up taking too much on and getting stressed as a result. On the odd occasion that I do say no I make sure to have a plausible excuse so that I can’t be talked into saying yes. I usually follow it by thanking them for asking and expressing how much I would have loved to, telling them ‘Next time for sure’ because I don’t want to burn bridges, especially when it comes to work.”
– THE DIVERSION TACTIC –
“My line? I say, ‘I actually have a few other commitments to sort out right now’, coupled with a quick ‘You must be really busy and stressed too…?’ to divert the focus back onto the asker. Absolutely foolproof.”
– ALWAYS EXPRESS REGRET –
“When you start going into all the reasons why you’re saying no, it can sound like an excuse. So I think it’s always best to just say ‘So sorry, I can’t make it.’ As long as you express regret, it’s not rude or ungrateful.”
– THE PRO –
I have found that unless it will cause unnecessary offence honesty is the best policy. If I’m invited to something I really don’t want to go to, I usually tell the person inviting me why (unless they are the reason!). With family I am always honest; I have recently been invited to a wedding which, for personal reasons, I don’t want to go to. I told the bride and took her out to lunch instead. If I really can’t be bothered being honest, I come up with an excuse – around work or the family – as they tend to be the main reasons I say no. At work, I just say no, and don’t explain myself at all, any more.”