Mastering the Art of the Gracious "NO"

by Margie Warrell

"Examine the labels you apply to yourself. Every label is a boundary or limit you will not let yourself cross." I came across this quote by Dwayne Dyer the other day, and it really resonated with me. It applies to every one of us in different areas of our lives but when I read it, I had just finished speaking with a friend who said she is someone who "just cannot say no to people." Consequently she finds herself continually committed to doing more than she can possibly deliver. This creates a lot of (unnecessary) stress by trying to get it all done and feeling guilty about those things she just can't get around to.

I have lost count (well, I actually never started to count) how many people I've encountered in life who love to share how incredibly busy they are and go on to complain about how much they are asked to do for other people or organizations - their bosses, their kid's school, their sports club, their children, their church, and so forth.

Are you overcommitted?

Do you label yourself as someone who "just can't say no"? Or perhaps you can say no, but still often find yourself overcommitted and resenting all you have to do?

Of course there is nothing wrong with choosing to say yes. In fact it's important to say yes to those things you value as important. Just don't go laying the blame of how busy you are at anyone else's feet. It was YOU, after all - not them - who said "yes".

Sure there are times when it is important to commit to doing things you would prefer not to do. Like when your boss asks you to work late to complete a report which means having to drop everything you're working on. But even then you can always say no. Of course the consequences of doing so may not be good for your career but you can still say no (and perhaps you could do with a new job anyway!).

Evaluating the Cost of Saying Yes

The issue most of us have with saying no is that we ultimately want to please people. We want to be regarded as agreeable, helpful, likeable, team players, dependable… all natural human desires. Nothing wrong with that. But every time you say yes to something you are leaving less time (and energy) for something else. Without consciously deciding to, you can be taking time and energy away from people and things that really do matter to you.

As Bill Cosby said, "I don't know the key to success. But the key to failure is trying to please everybody." So next time you find yourself feeling like you have to say yes when a loud "Nooooo!" is screaming through your head, ask yourself:

  • Is it something or someone I value important enough that I am prepared to put the time and energy it requires into it?
  • Am I going to be able to keep this commitment as intended or am I overcommitted to other things already?
  • What will I not be able to do because I'm doing this instead?

Taking Responsibility for Your Decisions

If you do find yourself committing to something, you really have no grounds for complaining about it. Are you looking for sympathy, or admiration? Stop being a martyr.

If you regret saying yes but cannot renege on your commitment, learn from your experience and purpose in your heart not to repeat this mistake. Then take responsibility for your choice to say 'yes' and just get on with it with a positive attitude. You can also ask others to help you meet your commitment. It can't hurt to ask - they can only say no!

Tips for Saying No

If you struggle with how to say no to people who you fear will be disappointed in you or might think less of you, candidly share your reasons. For instance, last week a friend left a message asking me if I'd like to join her at a home shopping party, which I really don't enjoy. I'd rather spend that time with my husband and kids. I knew she would likely be disappointed but I wanted her to know it was the party and not her I was saying no to. "Thanks for thinking of me and I hope you're not too disappointed but I don't really enjoy those parties. However I'd love to catch up with you for a coffee sometime soon." She's still my friend.

Just be honest (as kindly as you can). You can say it like it is while still honoring the other person's dignity. You can also agree to some part of a request without having to agree to all of it. Here are some examples:

  • Thanks for being so thoughtful. I appreciate your invitation but I have a lot going on and I just don't want to commit to anything else at the moment.
  • I'm flattered that you would like me to do that for you but I won't be able to fit it in over the next week/month. Give me a call back in a month and I will see if I have time to do it then.
  • I'm sorry I will not be able to do ______, but I could help you with _____ if that would work for you.

The more you practice anything the better you get at it. This applies equally to the art of graciously declining or 'renegotiating' the many offers, requests and invitations that come your way.

If you find yourself on the spot and feeling pressured to give a 'yes' right away and unprepared to say no right then and there, offer to get back to them later that day or the next (and then follow through with your commitment!. This gives you time to really think about the request and prepare your reply.

Saying No to the Good Makes Time for the Great

By far the greatest benefit of mastering the 'no' is that it frees up your precious time and energy to do things that you really want to accomplish and for the people most important in your life. You know, the stuff you say you never have time for - just hanging out with your kids or catching up with your best friend whom you never get to see, doing some exercise, or just sitting down to read a great book!

So I ask you to give it a try next time you're asked something you don't want to do - just say no. And remember - sometimes you have to say no to the good to make room for the great!

Margie Warrell is a Certified Life Coach focused on empowering women to being their best in life: to greater success, fulfillment and balance - less the stress. She is also the mother of four children. For more information please visit:

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