How to Make Saying ‘No’ Less Awkward

Because it does, in some instances, just have to be said.

A sign in a shop window spelling 'Nope' with red letters

While some insist that ‘sorry’ is the hardest word, if you’re actively participating in the modern world, we think a harder word would still be the seemingly simple ‘no’. Whether it’s the eternally impossible task of that dinner with friends that never seems to eventuate, trying to surface above the deluge of extra work or just trying to make life lean a little further in your favour, a simple refusal to take on one more thing can sometimes do the world of good. So what makes that word so difficult?

In a social context, it’s the fear of being perceived as a bit of a yawn or someone who’s not prepared to invest in their relationships. At work, it’s the fear of being perceived as the human equivalent of a pair of crossed arms: you mindlessly agree to tasks you don’t really have time for because you want colleagues to think you’re a ‘doer’ and meanwhile, you (and your plans) are slowly disintegrating.

There’s only one thing that stands in your way and that’s your ability to assert yourself and politely decline. Here are a few ways you can make your ‘no’ a little easier:

Take away the ‘yes’, then give something back
This is an effective way of taking yourself out of the running for something larger while not absolving yourself from all responsibility. For example, if someone asks you around for a birthday dinner but you’re not much in the mood to schlep it across town, why not flip the old adage on its head and taketh, then giveth away? “I won’t be able to make it tonight, sorry! How about I drop a cake around this weekend for you though?” A cake emoji works wonders here.

The sandwich technique
Everyone loves a good sandwich – including potentially disgruntled team members. This classic refusal technique has you treating your knock back as the ham in a sandwich of more positive surrounding statements. In practice, it should look something like this:

Request:
Jane, would you mind picking up the rest of John’s project this afternoon?
Your response:
(Bread slice) I really appreciate you considering me for finishing touches on that project – I think it sounds really interesting.
(Ham) I’m not actually to take on anything at the moment unfortunately.
(Bread slice) I’m right in the middle of another project though that I’m looking forward to showing you the results of – I think you’ll be pretty chuffed with the outcome!

The general principle cushions potential offence of a refusal with some positive statements. That way, you’ll be far away from a flat ‘nope’ and your response will be well into the realm of reasonable.

Put the ball back in their court
An addition to the sandwich of kindness is the option to add a question at the end of your chat, in order to make it less of a closure and more of an open exchange. If, for example, you have the above exchange with your manager, you could add a: “Time unfortunately won’t allow me to finish both my project and Jane’s to our usual high standard. I’d need a little more time for that. How do you think I should best prioritise these tasks?”

Do a language swap
Part of successfully saying no and having people respect it is making certain you’ve made yourself understood. But it’s not just someone else you’ve got to convince – it’s yourself. When it comes to saying no and sticking to it from gym work and procrastination to making the persistent peer be a little less pushy, there’s one word you should avoid. This fascinating study delves into the unbelievably powerful impact of swapping the word “can’t” with the word “don’t”. When sticking to longer term exercise goals, only 1 out of 10 “I can’t” group members managed their goal, as opposed to 8 of the 10 “I don’t” group members. Not only that, but if you consider the different feeling the phrase “we can’t do discounts” evokes as opposed to the firmer, more concrete statement “we don’t do discounts” gives you an indication of the power this phrase swap can have in the interests of saying ‘no’. Have a think about the words you use in place of your no – maybe it’s time to resconsider just how powerful they are.

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