how to say no to anyone anytime gracefully by Madi Mihalcea

However introverted we are, we remain social beings, longing for acceptance and inclusion. As a result, we tend to over-commit, stretching thin our energy, time, and other valuable resources. “No” becomes so difficult to say.

You might say yes when you would instead say no, out of compassion for other people or out of fear, guilt or shame. At the time, your inner resources of energy, patience and empathy decrease. As a result, you might say no in a way that can spoil the relationship.

How do you find a balance between supporting others AND taking care of your needs at the same time?

The process

  1. get clear about your priorities and your needs
  2. empathize with the other and show him/her that you see them and understand where their request is coming from
  3. express your choice

See my other articles where I explain the difference between empathy and sympathy and 4 tips for effective listening.

For ease, let’s take an example. Your close friend of yours comes to you and asks “Can you give me a ride to the airport on Saturday morning?” You immediately think how nice it would be to have that morning just to yourself, sleeping in, after a week of overtime at work. So your need is for rest, maybe productivity during the following week. All this is step one.

Now, step two. Why would your friend ask you for a ride to the airport on Saturday morning? What needs is he/she trying to meet by doing so? Maybe it’s ease (instead of calling a cab and having a conversation with a stranger, they feel more comfortable with you). Perhaps it’s support and reassurance (because they are nervous about traveling by plane).

That’s it! Time to refuse them.

“I see how I could help you have some ease and support this Saturday morning. I need rest after this week of overtime to be productive the following week. Can I help you find another way to get comfortably to the airport?”

You are showing you care AND you are meeting your needs too.

Here’s another example. Regularly, your boss invites all his employees to the restaurant — after work. While you would LIKE spending some time with your colleagues in a nice restaurant, you would LOVE to go back home to your kid who misses you so much. Also, you don’t like the general idea of any team building outside the working hours.

So you want connection with your kid and spouse. And you also like some respect for the boundary between work time and free time. These are your needs. Your boss maybe wants to bring more fun and bonding to your team.

How do you say all this?

“I am torn between having some fun and connection with you all and spending time with my kid who misses me. Is there any chance to have lunch instead of dinner, next week, when we all go out?”

It is not a clear refusal. It’s an attempt to negotiate. And it just hints at your needs for boundaries regarding your free time. If your boss’ answer is ‘no,’ and depending on your relationship, you can refer to your personal policy.

“I have a personal policy that, outside the working hours, my family is my #1 priority. I will pass this invitation.”

And finally, if they get upset after your ‘no”, then that wasn’t a request, it was a demand or an order. And I can’t see how claims and orders can fit in a relationship where you want respect, collaboration, trust, ease, etc. So you decide if you’re going to stay in this relationship or you start planning your exit.


“Identify your needs, empathize, and refuse” is the short form of the process. Behind it, other elements sustain it:

Be honest and straightforward.

Make sure your reasons are clear. If you want to think about it, then say so. If you are not clear about (some parts of) the request, ask for details.

Do it in person.

The text form can often be misinterpreted. The willingness and compassion in the tone of voice can’t always come forth in an email or text message.

Show a willingness to support in other ways.

Offer an ‘olive branch’ by helping the other person to find someone else to support them.

Show acknowledgment and appreciation.

“Don’t put a but(t) in my face.”

It’s a saying I love from the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) community. The word ‘but’ negates and contradicts whatever you say before it. “I would like to help you, but…” “I am excited you trust me, but…” “I can see you would use some help, but..” Instead, just acknowledge their needs and express yours.

Keep your answers short.

In solving a task, your brain can only process four pieces of information in the working memory, and just for 30 seconds or less. Not only the other person will not absorb all that you are saying, but they might also become suspicious of your motives.

If in doubt, say no first, then yes.

It’s easier than the other way around.

Speak slooowly.

It will give you space and time to choose the words more aligned with your goals and values. The intention to connect is not enough. Pair it with the corresponding action.

Be kind and firm.

Create your personal policies and use “I don’t” instead of “I can’t.” “I don’t” shows more conviction and makes it harder for the other person to attempt to push on.

“Saying no frees you up to say yes when it matters most.”

– Adam Grant


I would argue that the number one reason is the lack of clarity. In other words, you are not clear on what you want, what your needs are, what’s a priority for you or not.

Of course, there is a neuropsychological point of view too. Hearing a NO or saying a NO trigger in your brain the release of dozens of stress chemicals — hormones and neurotransmitters. The result is a disturbance in logic, reason, and communication. Your anxiety and irritability raise. The levels of cooperation and trust plummet.

When someone makes a request you would rather say no to, at the same time, you imagine the results, the potential conflict. The brain (actually the amygdala, the emotional processing center) doesn’t like pain and disputes and would do anything to avoid them. It registers our ‘no’ as a threat to our need to create and maintain connections. Being part of a group was once vital to survival.

Still pondering if to say yes or no?

Sometimes, you might not be very clear on what answer to give. Here are some tips:

Firstly, be aware of your body responses.

Whenever you are asked or requested something, check your physical reaction to it. Tight chest, uneasiness sensations, belly cramps — these are signs of conflicting emotions that you would rather say no. Excitement, vitality, empowerment are just a few signs for saying yes. Ask yourself which answer — yes or no — draws out the most stronger physical sensation.

Above all, practice.

If you find yourself frequently in this kind of situation, reserve some time to practice. Ask yourself different hypothetical questions and answer with both yes and no and see the difference in your body.

Reflect on the following questions:

What are your three top priorities in your relationship with this person?

What are your top priorities in your life, in general, at the moment?

Will saying yes, in this case, compromise your key life goals?

Do you have the bandwidth for it?

Are you willing to surrender your wellbeing for the sake of this relationship?

Based on your answers to these questions you can decide what’s best for you — saying yes or saying no.

But, Madi, I “must” say YES!

Ok, let’s say that’s true. In this case:

– be clear that you would instead say no and you decide to say yes because you see there’s no other option in this situation

– attach a firm condition to your agreement — the colleague to bring you everything you need until 10 PM tomorrow or you’re out; you can host your in-laws for two days, not 10, without losing your momentum with your work; 

– make it clear next time you are going to say a definite no and propose to brainstorm strategies for the person in need what to do in a similar situation

– see the last point from the previous section. Reflect on those questions seriously.

In conclusion, by learning to say no with presence and compassion, you enrich your relationships and avoid becoming overwhelmed, over-committed, overstretched.

Be mindful of your first reaction to any request and honor it. Start with practicing saying no with smaller things that don’t seem to jeopardize the relationship if you refuse.

Until next time, take care!