How to Say ‘No’ to People
There are many reasons why we say ‘yes’ when we really want to say ‘no’– whether we’re worried about disappointing others, motivated out of greed or vanity, afraid of missing out, simply saying yes without thinking it through or a laundry list of other possible explanations. Learning how to say ‘no’ to people, though, is an important skill for any Stoic.
If you never learn to say no, it means that you are doing things you don’t want to do or things that don’t help you achieve your larger purpose, all while wasting your most precious resource– your time.
How to Say ‘No’ to People
When you google ‘how to say no to people,’ most of what comes up is tips on specific phrases you can use to turn others down. The top results give you different ways to say no, with suggestions like “I wish I were able to,” “let me think about it,” or “sadly, I have something else going on.”
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with searching for pre-scripted answers to help you learn how to say ‘no,’ this type of information isn’t going to help you deal with the root of the problem.
Learning how to say ‘no’ to people isn’t about saying the right words; it’s about gaining an understanding of why you want to say ‘no’ and being thoughtful about the way you use your time.
Here are some things you’ll want to work on if you want ‘no’ to be a normal part of your vocabulary that doesn’t conjure doubt, guilt, fear, or dread.
Perhaps the first step to saying ‘no’ is gaining more awareness of your own thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. It is easy to go through life letting other people dictate what we do and think, reacting to events without taking control of what is in our power, and letting our emotions steer our ship without any awareness that any other way is possible.
“We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens, we will have no regrets.”
– Dalai Lama
If you want to learn how to say ‘no,’ you need to get to know yourself. This might sound silly at first– how could you not know yourself? The truth is that humans are tricky creatures, and we are incredibly capable of deceiving ourselves day in and day out in a way that keeps us from really connecting with reality.
“I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.”
– Seneca the Younger
The Stoics teach us that we can gain self-awareness in two steps:
- By always being suspicious of our own opinions and perceptions and putting them “to the test,” as Epictetus says in his Discourses
- By evaluating the behavior of others with sympathy before suspicion
When you want to say ‘no,’ try and figure out why you want to say no. When you want to say ‘yes,’ try and figure out why you want to say yes.
For example, are you being driven by fear, emotions, or the opinions of others?
Understanding your own mind and actions is key to learning both how to say ‘no’ and what to say ‘no’ to.
Beyond that, self-awareness is key for determining what your main goals and purposes are in life. Without this information, you’ll likely continue to find it hard to say ‘no’ to things. After all, you don’t have anything better to do, do you?
Saying ‘no’ when you need to can take a lot of self-discipline. If we don’t develop self-discipline, we just ride through life in the passenger seat. If you want to be able to draw your own map in life and take control of what is in your power, learning to be disciplined is key.
Sometimes you have to learn how to say ‘no’ to things that a part of you wants to do– maybe your buddies are going out to the bar again, but you know it’s not how you want to spend your time. Saying no requires discipline.
“Love the discipline you know, and let it support you. Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life – no one’s master and no one’s slave.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Other times you have to learn how to say ‘no’ to things you’d rather not do anyway but are compelled to say yes to for a wide variety of reasons.
Either way, a clear sense of who you want to be and what you want to be is essential, along with the self-discipline to stay focused on your path.
Learn the Value of Your Time
Time is a non-renewable resource and arguably the most valuable one we have at our disposal. If you don’t know how valuable your time is, you’ll struggle to say ‘no’ to people when you need to.
“You have to assemble your life yourself– action by action.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Not only is time a resource that we can never get back once we spend it, but we have no way of knowing just how many minutes are left in our savings account. Death is always a possibility, no matter how slim, and we don’t know how long we have to accomplish what we want to in life.
“No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives—worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”
– Seneca the Younger
Once you learn just how precious your time is, saying ‘no’ to people becomes a heck of a lot easier.
Ask, “Is This Essential?”
Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you should say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a request or invitation. Luckily, we can learn from the notebook of the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, where he instructs himself always to ask if what is being said or done is necessary.
“…Most of what we say and do is not essential. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?””
– Marcus Aurelius
This can make the decision to say ‘no’ a lot more straightforward while also giving you the strength just to say that magic word in order to protect your time for those things you do believe are essential.
Recognize the Cost of Saying ‘Maybe’
When you say ‘maybe’ when what you want to say is ‘no,’ you’re not doing anyone any favors.
“The oldest, shortest words – ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – are those which require the most thought.”
You’re pushing back the inevitable moment when you will say no, and you’re giving the other person a false impression. If you want to show the other person respect and compassion, be honest with them from the start.
Realize the Cost of Trying to Please Everyone
Do you always say ‘yes’ to everything because you want everyone to like you? I’ve got news for you– it’s not going to work anyway.
You can’t please everyone. You just can’t.
“Don’t be concerned with other people’s impressions of you. They are dazzled and deluded by appearances. Stick with your purpose. This alone will strengthen your will and give your life coherence.”
Not only that but you’ll be pulled further and further away from yourself and your purposes. When you try to make everyone like you, you’re putting their needs above your own over and over again in a neurotic or habitual manner.
“Very successful people say no to almost everything.”
– Warren Buffett
Beyond that, you’re essentially trying to control something that is out of your control. You don’t get to decide whether someone else likes you. Instead, focus on what you can control– whether or not you say ‘yes’ to what someone is asking you to do.
Figure Out What’s Important to You
When you don’t know what’s important to you and what you value, it’s easy to just say yes to everything. After all, what else are you going to do?
Digging deep and determining what you care about and what matters to you is an essential foundation for a good life. From there, it will be much clearer what you should say ‘no’ to, and you’ll find it much easier to tell people ‘no’ when that’s what’s right for you.
Recognize What You Can Control
Do you get caught up saying ‘yes’ to everything because you don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings or because you’re afraid they won’t like you anymore? Do you say ‘yes’ because you want people to think of you a certain way?
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”
– Marcus Aurelius
As we mentioned above, these are things that aren’t in your control. Suppose someone is going to get angry with you for saying ‘no,’ that isn’t something that you have power over. In many cases, it is their flaw– not yours.
Find Your Purpose
What are you doing with your life? What’s your purpose? Why are you here?
“The soul which has no fixed purpose in life is lost; to be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
– Michel de Montaigne
You’ll find it’s a lot easier to say ‘no’ when you know what goals you are working toward. You’ll be able to see if the request or invitation fits within that purpose or if it just draws you away from it.
“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”
At the same time, if you don’t say no and take some time to focus on yourself, you’ll likely have a hard time figuring out exactly what that purpose is.
Why Do We Struggle to Say ‘No’?
Analyzing why we have such a hard time saying ‘no’ is an important part of learning how to say it. What compels you to say ‘yes’ to everything?
Let’s look at some common reasons that people struggle to say ‘no’ even when it’s right for them.
The Fear of Hurting or Disappointing Others
Sometimes we are afraid that saying ‘no’ will disappoint someone else or hurt them. For example, maybe you don’t want to tell your parents that you’re going to spend the holidays with your spouse rather than traveling to visit them.
A lot of people would struggle with this situation, but it’s important to understand that doing things for other people when they don’t align with what you want to do is just a breeding ground for resentment. You also will struggle to ever create boundaries with others (in this example, your parents) if you aren’t willing to state how you feel.
“Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
When faced with a decision, you need to look at the reality of the situation and take all of the available information into account. The fact that your parents might be upset is only one piece of information. Maybe you ultimately do decide that keeping them company during the holidays is worth it when you weigh it against all other factors. Maybe you do decide that spending time with family is a value that you want to prioritize.
The point isn’t that you should always say ‘no’ when it might hurt someone just to prove that you are separating what’s in your control and what isn’t. The point is that you also shouldn’t just say ‘yes’ because of an imagined outcome (i.e., your parents feeling hurt) that is out of your control.
When we’re afraid of hurting others, we’re suffering from imagined scenarios. Perhaps you don’t know how your parents would react to the news because you’ve never pushed back even a little bit. Don’t try to control their emotions for them– not only is this not in your power, but it also can fall into the realm of being manipulative and not treating them as mature adults in their own right.
The Fear of Conflict
Maybe you’re worried that saying ‘no’ will start a fight or a conflict with someone else. Perhaps you hate the feeling that someone is unhappy with you and can’t stand the idea that they are going to be angry with you when you say no.
It might start to sound like there’s a mockingbird in the room, but I’m going to say it once again: how another person reacts to what you say is outside of your control.
The Fear of Guilt
This is a rough one. You’re about to say ‘yes’ to something that you want to say ‘no’ to just because you’re afraid that you might feel guilty later.
Guilt is a natural feeling that occurs when we do something that we feel is wrong. When you feel guilty, the best thing you can do is extract the lesson and learn what it is that you should never do again.
“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.”
– Gautama Buddha
The fear of guilt essentially means that you’re worried that you’re going to realize that saying ‘no’ was a mistake. Instead of being overtaken by this fear of a future feeling, take the time to consider whether saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is the right thing for you. Make your decision thoughtfully and based on reason, not out of fear.
If you do this, you won’t have anything to feel guilty about. If you end up feeling guilty anyway, then there’s simply a lesson you need to learn.
The Fear of Rejection or Judgment
Another reason you might be struggling to say ‘no’ is that you’re worried you’ll be rejected. Maybe you think that saying no to your boss will mean you’re out of the running for that promotion, or saying no to your friend will be the end of your friendship.
Perhaps you expect that other people will think you’re a “bad” person or that you’re doing the wrong thing.
“We should not, like sheep, follow the herd of creatures in front of us, making our way where others go, not where we ought to go.”
– Seneca the Younger
If we want to fulfill our potential as people, we have to learn not to be guided by what others think or what we expect they will think. We have to learn to figure out what we think is right and follow the path we believe is the proper course for us.
Trying to Please Others
We touched upon this earlier, but an incredibly common reason that people struggle to say ‘no’ is that they are trying to make everyone else happy or concerned with the way others see them.
“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
– Marcus Aurelius
The truth is, though, that we can only do our best work in the world when we are honest and when we focus on what we can control. Being a people pleaser can ultimately lead to resentment, anger, frustration, stress, anxiety, a lack of authenticity in life, and many other negative effects.
Being Unrealistic About the Cost
Not realizing the cost of saying ‘yes’ all the time can also lead us not to say ‘no’ when we should.
“It is not that we are given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”
– Seneca the Younger
We only have so much time to be alive, and we have no way of knowing how much time we have left.
“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.”
– Bruce Lee
It’s important to be thoughtful about how we use our time and not let others determine how we spend it. Otherwise, we’ll never get to where we’re trying to go.
“At the intersection where your gifts, talents, and abilities meet a human need; therein you will discover your purpose.”
Fear of Missing Out
Sometimes we want to say ‘yes’ to things because we’re afraid we’re going to miss out on a bunch of fun or a big opportunity. If we feel this way, we should analyze the proposition and determine whether this really is a big opportunity that helps us reach our purpose or if we’re just getting swept up in the mentality of the crowd.
“The individual has always to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that you’ve realized that you’ve been spending way too much time at the bar with your buddies. It’s been dawning on your that you’re never going to meet your goals in life if you spend the weekends in a cycle of being drunk and hungover. On top of that, you feel like it’s the same thing every time– the same conversations, the same jokes, and nothing particularly meaningful to you.
But then your friend texts you to see if you want to go to the bar.
You want to say no– you’ve been reading a really interesting book recently that’s been invigorating your mind.
At the same time, you’re worried that you’re going to miss out on a really good time. Maybe something interesting will happen, you say, and you won’t be there to be a part of it.
In this type of situation, you know what the right thing to do is. Don’t let the fear of missing out (or fear of any kind, for that matter) keep you from focusing on what you know you should be focusing on. The cost of not valuing your time is going to be much higher than the cost of missing another night at the bar.
Why You Should Say ‘No’
Time is always marching forward. There are many things we don’t have control over in life, but how we spend our time is something that’s in our control.
“My experience is what I agree to attend to.”
– William James
Sure, most of us aren’t dealing with a blank slate in terms of our schedule– there are demands on our time, including work, family, relationships, and more. But, at the end of the day, no one is forcing us to spend our time in a job we despise, enabling our drunk relatives or playing video games until 3 am. We choose.
“If you must say yes, say it with an open heart. If you must say no, say it without fear.”
– Paulo Coelho
The idea isn’t that you should deny every opportunity or request made of you. There are a lot of benefits to saying ‘yes’ to the things in life– it can open you up to new experiences, give you new skills, and push you out of your comfort zone. On the other hand, saying ‘yes’ to everything without any concern for your own duties or purposes is a recipe for a listless and aimless life.
As Auguste Rodin said, “nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.” You just have to stay vigilant and choose whether the experience a person is offering you falls within your span of duties or is something that you can use wisely. Otherwise, it’s possible there are other things you’d rather be turning your attention to.
We each have our own unique purpose in life. Only you can know why you are here and how you should be spending your time. Every time you choose to do something, you are doing so at the expense of every other possible thing you could be doing.
“No one saves us but ourselves… We ourselves must walk the path.”
– Gautama Buddha
There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying ‘yes’ to things, of course. But it’s essential that you understand that you are the one that is in control of how you spend your time. You are the one that controls your actions. In this way, you are saying ‘no’ to an infinite number of other things you could be doing every time you say ‘yes.’
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.“
– Steve Jobs
Many of the reasons that people struggle to say ‘no’ is that they’re afraid of how the other person will react. This is something that we must break free from if we want to follow the advice of the Stoics– we have to recognize that we don’t control the reactions of others, only ourselves.
It is good to treat people well, but it also isn’t great to lie all the time to try and avoid eliciting negative responses from others.
Do you want other people to tell you what they think they want to hear, or do you ultimately want them to be honest?
“Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to face the truth. Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity.”
– W. Clement Stone
Most of us would say that we would prefer people to tell us how they really feel. Why not give other people the same respect you would hope they’d give you?
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”
– Thomas Jefferson
This doesn’t mean that you have to be brutally honest if the circumstance doesn’t call for it. But if someone invites you somewhere, don’t say yes when you don’t want to go. Just tell them no. It’s as easy as that.
Letting Others Determine the Course of Your Life
Do you want to be a person of action or a person of reaction? Do you want to let other people determine the path that you walk in life?
“You become what you give your attention to. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.”
There aren’t many things you can control in life, but some of the most important aspects are within your power. How you spend your time is one of them.
If someone asks you to do something that you don’t have time for, takes you away from something more meaningful, or that you simply don’t want to do, take control of your life and say no.
Focusing on Our Purpose
Figuring out what your purpose is isn’t the easiest task on your to-do list. Some people seem to be born knowing, while others feel a lot hazier about the topic.
Marcus Aurelius tells us that “the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” Though they put a large emphasis on protecting your own time and committing to personal progress, the Stoics also strongly put forward the idea that we are here for each other.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
– Mark Twain
What that means for you is unique to you. But when you don’t protect your own time, you’re actually interrupting your own ability to contribute something worthwhile to your community and society as a whole.
Saying ‘no’ to others can be an incredibly difficult skill to learn, but you’ll find that it gets easier as time goes on. The more you say no in order to focus on your goals and purposes, the more you’ll learn just how valuable that time is.
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