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How to say no, nicely


For some of us, the pandemic brought a guilty pleasure. We were released from the burden of having to say no to some social obligations.

In-person socializing was a loss, but for us introverts, it was a kind of relief.

As the possibility of social obligations returns, I’ve heard friends saying, “I can’t use the pandemic as an excuse for saying no anymore.”

I recently tested my atrophied socializing skills at two dinners with vaccinated friends. Receiving real hugs felt fantastic, not to mention talking in person and sharing a meal. I noticed, however, that as much as I enjoyed my friends, I ran through my withered stock of extroversion after a couple of hours.

This suggested I may need to take a go-slow approach to becoming social again. Plan ahead. And, remember how to say no when that’s needed.

It may help to create a protocol for how much I can do. That will make it easier to set boundaries without offending. How many in-person coffee dates/walks/dinners out can I do if I want to stay on track with writing my book? The same question applies to volunteer activities/discussion groups/webinars/doctor appointments. (Truth: I perpetually over-estimate my capacities.)

Sometimes the solution is to space things out.

Other times I need to “just say no.”

Prep your no with some inner work

You can prepare a kinder no by remembering the following:

1) You have nothing to prove.

Having to prove myself has been a secret mantra much of my life. It overlays two fundamental beliefs many of us carry: that we’re unworthy (and must prove ourselves likable) or that we’re not good enough (and have to do more).

We hide under the veneer of being nice, delightful, high-achieving people. But our achievements never fill the soul-hole that feels like we’re always lacking.

We jump through hoops to be worthy of being liked. We set high standards for ourselves that we can never meet. We stretch ourselves to achieve. We constantly seek self-improvement. We try to do more than we can or should for others.

We may produce some impressive results. Yet we can’t celebrate our contributions when they lie on top of the belief that we should have done more or were not worthy to begin with.

I wish I could snap my fingers or read a book and make such beliefs go away. I can’t. But I can notice how they lurk in the background when I’m tempted to take on too much or faced with an invitation that I don’t feel called to do.

If you’re looking at an invitation that sounds like an obligation and not what you know you’re meant to accept, it’s time for a pause.

Find a time for silence and quiet space in which to ask the questions, “What do I know is right for me to do now?” And, “Am I trying to prove or make up for something?”

2) Respond with an open heart

When people feel your love, your “no” won’t sting. Your words may not even matter as much as your intent. People may end up feeling more appreciated.

Always open your heart before you open your mouth.

Some phrases to try:

Start with what you can do vs. what you can’t.

“I’d be glad to share some thoughts with you, even though I can’t take this on.”

Be sympathetic without agreeing to do something.

“Your project sounds inspired and I wish I could help, although I can’t.”

Offer a future/possible option.

“I can’t now, but maybe I can (insert date), if you don’t mind waiting.”

Be real about your situation.

“I’m maxed/slammed/overcommitted, etc. so I can’t but….”

Just say no.

“Thank you so much, but no.”

(If you need more, check out this site.)

Saying no supports our yeses

Saying no saves room for yeses. Yeses to seeing vaccinated friends we haven’t seen in a year. Yeses to being with family. (I’m with my grandson this week!!!) Yeses to helping those still affected by Covid (with big prayers and support for India).

And yeses to protecting some calm, silent, reflective space to nourish our inner life even as the gates to the world begin to open.

One Response

  1. I’ve learned to say thank you but I’m already booked. If I don’t have another appointment with someone else then I’m booked with myself. I don’t feel like I have to explain my choice. I’m fortunate that I’ve always been a recluse and don’t feel comfortable being in crowds of people. I’m more of a one on one type of person.

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