February 22, 2024


You probably don’t need to be told that your life would improve if you could learn to say “no”. Take a look at your to-do list. Take a look at your diary. How much of that could someone else be doing while you took a bath in epsom salts and listened to a podcast about ghosts? How much resentment and chagrin could you have sloughed off as you rolled around in your acres of uncontaminated me-time?

Natalie Lue, the author of The Joy of Saying No, spent almost the first 30 years of her life saying “yes”. How did that work out for her? “It led to being ill, feeling frustrated and resentful with family, at work, even with friends.”

But it’s not as simple as just resolving to say “no” more often. As Julia Bueno, a psychotherapist and the author of Everyone’s a Critic: How We Can Learn to be Kind to Ourselves, points out, “You risk exposing yourself to someone being pissed off, or judging you, or criticising you.” It’s a lifelong journey, for an inveterate pleaser, to learn how to get a true sense of “where you end and others begin”, and set a boundary.

So take everything one bite at a time. Build up your “no” muscle with repetition. Start somewhere with low stakes, and lie if you have to: “no” experts are pretty unanimous on the value of the white lie. I personally find all “no” situations equally impossible, but here are tactics for 13 scenarios you may well find yourself in.

Family

Will you go all in on a five-day family Christmas, because that’s what you do every year?
If a “no” will break someone’s heart, Bueno recommends a white lie: “My work rota has come through; it will have to be three days.” But your family is going to be your weak spot: a close sibling will probably know you’re lying, and it’s very hard to step out of character if you’re the person who habitually goes with the flow. That’s what makes it even more important to say no, Lue says. “These are the people we learn our relationship with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ from.” If you’ve got a hangover from the childhood dynamic, and you feel you’re not allowed to say “no”, focus on the long game. “On my dad’s side of the family, no matter how old you get, you’re still the child versus the grownups,” Lue says. “That’s a very African-Caribbean thing: many immigrant cultures take respect very seriously. So there was a lot of friction for a while, and I would sometimes feel very hard done by. But here we are, all these years later; we’re so much in a better place.”

Keep your responses bespoke, Bueno says. “How you progress will depend on the relationship at hand. If it is a sibling you’re really close with, you might well be explicit.”

Will you babysit your toddler nephew yet again?
People tend to ask for things because a pattern has built up: “There’s a part of us that goes, ‘I’ve done this loads of times, without complaint.’ We get understandably antsy about what their reaction will be if we say ‘no’,” Lue says. And there probably will be a reaction, whether that’s making a face, or a full-blown conflict. “That’s not about the ‘no’ being wrong – it’s about the dynamic. Actually, your ‘no’ was overdue.”

If you’re worried about the situation flaring up, you can try the staggered “no”: I can do it this time, but next time I need more notice.

Can you lend me (your sibling) some money?
If you have it, and this is a one-off that will stave off catastrophe, do it. But if this is part of your relationship, that they’re always asking for money, never pay it back and think you’re made of gold, at some point you’ll have to say “no”. Do it with compassion – this situation, in which you are the money bags, was co-created, half by you. There’s a risk that the first “no” will be so uncomfortable and unfamiliar to you that it comes off bristly and unkind. Beware the backslide. You’ll probably have to say “no” more than once for it to stick. It’s actually quite liberating if the other person gets angry at the refusal: more likely they don’t, and you just feel guilty. Ask yourself, Lue advises: “Is what you usually do actually helping? Are you blocking that person from figuring out something for themselves? We can be sensitive to what someone’s going through without stripping them of their responsibilities.”

Your spouse wants something. It doesn’t matter what – it could be a garden centre trip, a mini-break, a game of Scrabble. What matters is, you always say ‘yes’ and now you want to say ‘no
“If you’re talking about spousal relationships,” Bueno says, “that’s more of a negotiation: it’s far easier to know in less intimate situations where I end and you begin.” In a relationship, you might have collapsed into each other somewhat, and if you try to re-establish boundaries unilaterally, that’s pretty threatening.

“Your partner might think, ‘Are you angry with me?’, ‘Are you punishing me?’, ‘Are you withdrawing from me?’” Lue says. “If they’re feeling threatened by it, you have to have a conversation that starts, ‘I realise I’ve been people-pleasing.’ Give a few specific but brief examples. Say, ‘I want to change the way I do things, but this isn’t me lashing out at you.’”

Illustration of a man turning away and folding his arm to say NO
Illustration: MARK LONG/The Guardian

Friends

Will you come out for a drink, even though it’s a Tuesday, and I am a caner, and you like to be in bed by 10pm?
A straight “No, I’m tired” will be fine, but we often offer alternatives: “Do you want to come over instead?” Which is fine if you want your friend to come over, but often that counteroffer is just to keep the negotiation in play, because closing it down feels brusque. Lue says: “If someone said, ‘Hey, do you want to have a threesome?’ and you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t go, ‘I don’t want to do a threesome, but what about you tie me up instead?’ Don’t offer alternatives if you don’t want to do the alternative either.”

Will you come to my party even though you’ll have a horrible time?
The golden rule on all invitations is “stop and think”: if this was happening in half an hour’s time, how would you feel? A lot of parties won’t clear this hurdle, and now you have to figure out what to say. It’s very simple, says Lue: “It all comes down to knowing your audience: there are certain friendships where, if I say, ‘I can’t be arsed,’ nobody thinks anything of it. Give those relationships your honesty, because they can hack it.” For the friendships that can’t hack it, a simple prior engagement will work. I always say it’s my mum’s birthday. She’s been 80 about 15 times.

Will you come to my wedding, even though it’s going to be really expensive and you can’t afford it?
The nightmare scenario is that you’ll do what everyone does, says Lue: “You’re aware that you can’t afford to go to the wedding, but you don’t want to feel like a bad friend, so you put it off: ‘Yeah, I’m coming – it’ll be grand.’ It rumbles on and on, to the point where, when you realise you have to say something, it feels quite late. And then they get annoyed. And you’re thinking, ‘Hold on, why are they getting annoyed with me? If I can’t afford it, I can’t afford it.’”

Get in early, and say the hard thing. But don’t use money as the reason if it’s not the real reason. If you get in early enough that they actually adjust their plans to make it cheaper, and you still don’t want to go, no naysaying expert in the world can help you.

A big gang of us are going paintballing at a date to be determined. Are you, in principle, up for it?
It feels very mean to reject a plan before it’s even been made, as if you’re raining on everyone’s parade. Bueno’s advice covers loads of scenarios, including this one: “If your immediate response is always ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, sure,’ take a moment. Say: ‘Can I get back to you on that one?’; ‘Let me have a think.’ Just buy yourself time. Most people don’t mind.” By the time you have decided it’s a “no”, the message will have already got through that you’re not keen, and it won’t feel so blunt.

You might worry that if you turn down a group activity that they’re all going to slag you off when you’re not there: definitely, if they think you’re lying, or you’re known for flaking out at the last minute, they will be slagging you off. They’ve probably got a sub-WhatsApp group without you already. But if you’re straightforward, there’s not much to say: “Tsk, that X; always being clear about his/her needs and preferences, in a timely manner.”

Work

Will you, underling/employee, take on this project you don’t have time for?
“You need to set a boundary but you don’t want to look unwilling,” says Marie O’Riordan, an executive coach. “The first thing you say is: ‘Thank you so much for the opportunity.’” Then you just need to spell out what it would mean: “I’m going to have to postpone project X, which was important to the client. So which one would you like me to prioritise?” It’s more stressful at work because there’s a formal chain of command, and the expectation is that you’ll say “yes”. But this is where Bueno gets clients to practise saying “no”, because it’s less emotionally charged. “I might set homework and say, ‘Just say no to that extra project – give it to someone in your team,’” she says. “And clients come back with this look of great joy, to have said ‘no’, and it was OK. Nobody died.”

Will you mediate between these two warring colleagues, or manage a difficult client?Again, O’Riordan suggests you “show graciousness. Say, ‘I’m really happy to do it. But it might be confusing for them – they might wonder why I’m stepping in to that role. Are you leaving? Has something happened?’ What you’re doing strategically is trying to unnerve the boss, while staying amenable.”

Will you take this promotion, which you don’t want, either because it’s a lot more work, or because the work is less interesting, or because there’s no more money in it?
You have to get this right, because an enthusiasm fail could mark your card. “You could say something such as, ‘I want to spend more time with my family, and that might interfere with the commitment required.’ That might not be completely the truth, but it’s a good way of saying ‘no’ because they do actually want you 24/7,” says O’Riordan. Give the family lie a time bracket – “while the kids are doing GCSEs”, “while my dad is ill”, “until the youngest starts primary school”: that way you haven’t got yourself pegged as a permanently unambitious person and you can get back in the game on your own timetable. Once you start on a big, long-range lie, its upkeep is your responsibility.

The world

I’m about to perform a medical examination of an intimate nature; do you mind if five student doctors come and watch?
Many people feel intimidated by the medical profession, and others feel they have a civic duty to be guinea pigs, since how else are students supposed to learn? Yet having an audience in any kind of medical examination is not the same as refraining from honking a learner driver, and there are any number of reasons why you might not want that. “Just think, ‘There are other patients,’” says Lue. “There are all sorts of people, many of whom won’t mind at all.”

Can I stop you here in the street, and ask what you think of cancer/animal abandonment/knife crime and also get your bank details?
It’s such a piteous feature of modern life, the chugger: they’re having to act incredibly cheerful around people who just want to be left alone; you feel their humiliation, and yet at the same time, can’t afford to take out every possible charitable subscription. I always go with, “Thanks, but I already donate to X,” so I’m validating their cause and therefore their endeavour. They know I may be lying, but they also know why, so the exchange ends up being quite pleasant, though obviously it would be more pleasant for them if I’d just give them my bank details.



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