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July 3, 2007 > Council Corner

Council Corner

How to Say No and Be Heard

"NOOOOOOOOOOO!" my toddler son screamed when I tried to get him to eat his greens. With that one word, his message to me was loud and clear. He had drawn his line in the sand and I was not to cross that line. I looked at him with amazement, and even with respect. How did this two-year-old learn to be so self-assertive, so sure of himself?

Although my two-year-old does not have a problem saying no, adults ten times his age have trouble doing this effectively.

Often, we try to say no but the person on the other end does not accept our answer immediately and easily. They offer alternatives, or ask for an explanation, or perhaps even become cold or hostile when we try to turn them down. In the face of their resistance, we cave in and end up agreeing to do what we did not want to do. Or we blame the other party for not listening to us and accepting our answer.

Our fantasy wish is that we can just say no and the other person would simply accept our answer and go away, without any questions, recrimination, or consequences. In our ideal world, our "No" is easily heard, accepted, and accommodated.

In our fantasy world, people behave in a way that suits us. However, in the real world, we have no or little control over how others behave. The good news is that we do have control over our own behavior and actions, and the ways we position ourselves can change how others perceive and interact with us.

We can learn to say no effectively and we can also learn how to say no without feeling badly about standing up for ourselves.

Here are suggestions to help you say no and be heard:

1. When you are about to say no to a request, you have to truly believe in your answer. If you are the slightest bit wishy-washy, the other party will pick up on your hesitation and will likely make it a lot harder for you to be firm in saying no. So before you approach the other person, make sure you are clear TO YOURSELF why you are saying no and why it is important to you to say no. Take a few minutes to get clarity about your position. Before convincing the other person of your "no," you have to first convince yourself that you are doing the right thing. A lot of times, we don't even believe that we should say no and the other party easily manipulates us when we are uncertain.

2. How we say no is also important. Ideally, we want to be confident, dignified, and firm when we turn someone down. Visualization can be a powerful tool in helping you gain and retain your confidence. Recently, I had to turn down a last-minute request from a supervisor. I knew that there was no way that I could fulfill his request and I also knew that he would make it hard for me to say no. Before meeting with him, I visualized myself as a large oak tree with widespread roots growing deeply into the soil. I felt myself becoming stronger, firmer, and more grounded as I pictured myself as this solid, ancient tree. With this image in my mind, I went into the meeting, told him "no," and was emotionally prepared when he tried to convince me to change my mind. Visualizing the solid oak as I faced him, I held firm to my answer. The upshot of this: I managed to say "no" with grace and dignity and I was heard by my supervisor.

3. It might also help to remember that someone who ignores your "no" is actually trying to control you. When this situation occurs, you might want to say to yourself, "This person is not listening to me and not hearing me say no. He/She is trying to control me. Do I want to be controlled by this person?" The answer to this question can help you say no over and over again, until the other party ceases trying to control you.

4. Be clear and direct - people sometimes feel they have to offer lengthy explanations with their "No's," but these explanations often make a person sound uncertain and indecisive. Moreover, the power of a clearly stated "no" is drastically reduced when it is accompanied by distracting excuses and stories. Worse still, these explanations open the door for the other person to counteract what one is trying to say.

5. When suddenly faced with a direct request, buy time for yourself if you are hesitant to say no immediately. Instead of jumping in and agreeing to something right away, try saying "I need to think about this first." This will give you the time and space to reflect on whether you truly want to do this. It is also setting the stage for you to say no later.

6. Apologies are not always necessary when you are saying no. Sometimes people apologize excessively when they say no, thinking that this will make the other person feel better. In reality, too much apologizing does not make anyone feel better and it reduces the strength and clarity of your message.

7. Remember that saying "No" does not necessarily mean you are being negative or difficult. A lot of people have difficulty saying "No" because they are afraid that others will see them as a bad person. Instead of seeing the word "no" in a negative light, try looking at it as being honest, clear, and respectful.

8. To reinforce your conviction when you say no, remind yourself that saying no to someone else is often a way to say "yes" to yourself. For instance, if I turn down this particular demand on my time, it frees up an opportunity to take care of myself or to do something I truly care about. Telling myself that I am saying a big "yes" to myself really helps me to say no with confidence and dignity.

There are some excellent resources if you would like to read more about this topic. You might want to check out "The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes" by William Ury and "How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty" by Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch.

I offer the suggestions above to help you craft your approach to saying no. Each person has a different personality, culture, history, and experiences - each of us has to experiment and find a personalized way to say no in a way that is comfortable and workable for us.

Last, remember that "No" is a complete sentence. Practice saying it, and say it often! As my toddler showed me, a simple and clear no is more effective than any other word. Best wishes to you in your efforts to say no. And do write me to let me know how you progress! I'd love to know your attempts and successes.

Anne Chan is a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor in Union City. She can be reached at or 510-744-1781.

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