Learn How to Say No Nicely

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Learn How to Say No Nicely - No Addmittance SignSaying no nicely is a skill that serves you well in all things great and small. This weekend, we were sitting in our living rooom in the middle of the day, and there was an unexpected ring at the door. I opened it to see who it was. A smiling man with a coupon book in his hand gave me his quick pitch about free raffle coupons and something to do with water-purifyers. He was a pleasant enough fellow, he spoke well, and he was trained in all the subtle tricks of the trade. As he talked about the free coupon, he tore one out at the perforated edge in a seamless move while never looking down at his hands, and held it ready to offer to me. I listened quietly and then said no. I didn’t slam the door on his face or anything, I just thanked him but said we weren’t interested. He in turn thanked me for my time and that was that.

This sort of thing happens regularly in everyday life, there’s always someone trying to sell you something. It could be a product at your door, a project at work, an idea amongst friends. The selling never stops. You try to sell people on your ideas too. That’s the way we work. What gets us into trouble is that we are scared, or shy, or feel guilty to simply say no. This compulsion to agree with everyone and accept everything thrown at you is the cause of more troubles in life than any other single trait.

Learn to Say No

There have been numerous articles, books, and much self-help gobbledygook written on the subject of saying no. They go into techniques, and strategies, and tips, and tricks, when the simple fact of the matter is that to say no, all you need to do is SAY NO. It’s a one word, one step process, and no amount of delaying it by studying techniques is going to help you muster the courage to make the leap.

Growing up, we learn to like pleasing people, because it makes them like us. Even if we don’t like pleasing people, we still find that it is much more convenient than disappointing them. This makes saying no an up-hill struggle, because if nothing else, we are a species of convenience. We’ll go to any lengths of inconvenience for the sake of some token convenience. It doesnt make any sense, but that’s the way it is. Have you seen people driving around in their car for half an hour trying to find a parking near the front door of where they’re going, rather than parking easily elsewhere and walking for ten minutes? Exactly, you’ve probably done it yourself.

Saying no is like finding a parking at a distance and walking. Sure it means facing the inconvenience first and head on, but it’s all good after that. By not saying no when you should, you’re just driving around in circles, trying to delay the inevitable inconvenience for as long as you can. Most likely, you’ll have to eventually give in and make that long walk to the mall anyway, only now the inconvenience has grown because you couldn’t make a decision. Not only do you need to walk, not only are you now aggitated and cursing unknown drivers who cut you off, you’ve also wasted 30 minutes you could have spent relaxing indoors. Suck it up and just say no!

Once you have made that mental decision to say no, all the techniques in the world are useless, except one which also requires very little explanation: it pays to say no nicely. Unfortunately, that’s rare too.

The No Tantrum

We hate saying no, but we’re often pushed into it by sheer necessity, so most of us don’t do it very well. How many times have you heard these: “Stop wasting my time!” or “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” or “I wouldn’t use your magical gold spinning services if you were the last magical gold spinner on the Earth!”? … not exactly those things maybe, but something similar. No matter who you are, or what you do, those should sound very familiar, either because you hear them often, or because you say them often. But what they all mean, is “No, thank you.”

Instead of saying “No, thank you”, what most of us actually say is, “I won’t go, I won’t go, I WON”T GO! And you can’t make me Mommy!”, and then we proceed to stamp your feet and try to hold your breath until we pass out. The act of saying no often turns into a childish tantrum, and a childish tantrum is an act of helpless frustration rather than one of strength and confidence. It’s natural for children to do it in some situations, they are often helpless and frustrated, as are many cluless parents, which is why they get into tantrum stand-offs with their kids so often, but I digress. A tantrum means you know you’re going to have to give in eventually. A tantrum either pisses the other person off, or it tells them that you’re likely to waver if they just push a little harder, neither of which helps. Saying no while indicating that you might not be so sure, is not the best way to go about it.

Saying No Nicely or The Polite No

A firm and polite no is more final. The fact that you aren’t trying to asphixiate yourself in protest or shout your lungs out in anger usually means that you are sure of what you’re saying, and you aren’t going to budge. If you aren’t going to budge, the average salesman or woman knows you’re a waste of their time. Their best option then is to return the politeness and move along to better prospects. This is all human nature, whether or not you’re being sold a 36-volume encyclopedia, the same principles hold.

Beyond the convenience and time-saving of saying no nicely, there is also the fact that it engratiates you to the person you said no to. Remember how I said we hate saying no? Well, the fact is most of us hate selling too. We’re embarrased by it, although the best sales people learn to hide that embarrasment behind a veneer of savvy confidence. When someone fights their embarrasment to “sell” or ask for something, berating them for it will just make them more embarrased or angry. Being polite is often a bit of human consideration that they don’t expect but welcome. Now they are thankful to you for saying no the way you said it. How can you possibly let go of that opportunity?

Saying No to Yourself

The most difficult no to say is to yourself. Every decision you make, no matter how big or small, often involves a bit of internal dialogue between your own conflicting opinions. This is really no different than the situations I’ve described above. One part of you, or several parts of you, are trying to convince you to do something, but the CEO of your mind, you, can’t get yourself to refuse, even though you know you shouldn’t indulge whatever it is you’re about to. We often indulge our destructive fancies, and just plain unhealthy or unreasonable tendencies, just because we can’t say no even to ourselves. Especially to ourselves.

Again, our first instinct is to shout at ourselves or shake our arms about in self deprecation for considering such things. But, even when it comes to the salesmen within, all you need to say is “No, thank you”, nicely. The same benefits apply.

I keep hearing that being a jerk is easy. I think it’s too much work. There are all those cutting insults to invent, all those forceful tirades to go into, and all those blood-pressure-raising arm movements to execute to convice your victim you are serious. As I said, too much work. If you’re refusing something, does it really help to call the legitimacy of anyone’s parenthood into question? Sure, maybe the guy you’re saying no to really is the illegitimate son of a three-humped camel, as you boldly claim, but does it matter when you are saying no and won’t have to deal with him further? Probably not.

First, learn to say no. It’s essential, and the only trick to it is to jump right in and say it as quickly as possible. And then, learn to say no nicely. Practice the fine but simple art of the polite no, and you will save youself a lot of time, suffering, and driving around in circles to get where you actually want to go. Sold? Good.


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  1. Hi Samir,this post gets to me in a profound way, as I´m going through a process where I have to keep my mind focus in one matter and everyone around me keep on pushing me, and NO is my response to many of them, and as you said, later I feel somewhat guilty, but deep in my heart I know that NO meant NO. NO´s are NO´s, why do we doubt sometimes?
    Your wise words make sense all the way, and your method of think, realize and say, (trying not to loose any more time) is what I will follow as a rule when I ever say NNNNNOOOOOO!!!!!!

    thank you Samir!


    1. You’re welcome, Magali. Always happy to know that something I write makes sense, or helps someone see things differently. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these wise words, but they are based on personal experience, so I hope they are at least practical words.

      We all need to say no often. It’s part of life. I don’t think there are any strict rules here, reality rarely has any, but there are always some helpful guidelines to follow. I just think it’s generally helpful to say no politely rather than in any other way. Best of luck with you own ‘no’ challenges. 🙂


  2. Samir,

    Thank you so much, for yet another thought provoking and insightful article!

    However, I’m going to have to politely say “no” to some of the ideas here, although for the most part, I agree wholeheartedly. For some reason, reading this made me think of Hannibal Lector (spell?). I think there was a really important lesson to be learned by the character that Anthony Hopkins created so meticulously and convincingly, and that lesson was simply missed by too many people in the audiences. The lesson is that courtesy and politeness are important, and sometimes even more important than the initial goals, present content, and ultimate end results of any interaction. You may be able to force a person to eat chocolate, recline in a hot tub, take several Prozac pills, or have an orgasm. However, their perception of the event may be negative and outweigh any potential dopamine release. People are indeed eager to “Escape from Freedom” (Erich Fromm). But ungrateful for reprieve from responsibility, prefer seduction (deception), or at least pretense of it (plausible deniability of responsibility).

    That is not to say that saying ‘no’ politely, is an acquittal for whatever ulterior motives Prince Machiavelli may have. Whether by lack of action/intention (negative) or inclusion of action/intention (positive), the nutritional value of yet the most beatific bouquet, may be a poison in disguise. And this algorithm is still only applicable to the most general use case. Audible linguistics is so much more than mere syntax and semantics. There are of course rather obvious variables (within loop rules) which require error handling, exceptions such as the Japanese culture, where saying yes, can still mean no under certain circumstances, or in situations where a “polite lie” is considered better form for a gentleman, allows the other party to save face, and may still be understood by both to be a merely polite lie.

    Consider one moment this: despite 99% shared genotype with us, chimps express altruistic behavioral phenotypes, which are FAR less complicated than that of humans (grooming others, or doing menial tasks for others in the tribe). Does that make it clear at all WHY they are doing this? Well, it’s polymorphic, with slight diversity in expression, and so we attempt to predict antecedent causes, benefits, and consequences. We know they have similar emotions, but cannot rule out that they are not attempting to gain tribal status (and certainly, this does seem to be one result), rather than merely attribute it to a sense of love, pride for their group (which is part of their identity), or some more noble reason. With such an infantile understanding of ourselves, how shall we ever hope of fertilizing artificial intelligence with introspective honesty, cultural sensitivity, and moral intuition before the singularity?

    According to Marino Palleschi, in medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was rude to indicate that a man wearing a mask in public could be recognized. Instead, polite behavior demanded that the masked person be treated as a completely unknown person and that no one ever attribute the masked person’s actions to the individual who performed them. The Lord of the land (rich guy) in fact had a legal right to sleep with your wife (who was presumed a virgin) BEFORE the husband did on their wedding night in parts of feudal Europe. To this very day, there remain social class divisions, in which apparently people expect to have their butts kissed simply because they are rich.

    In some cases, it does seem logical that the politeness demanded by the refined and civilized, is actually merely a byproduct of their well-funded education, and insulation from the physical discomforts of poverty, which can challenge even the most self-disciplined saint to reject their own conscience, and play the transparent and soul-less games of sycophancy which are an inevitably essential ingredient from time to time, for upward mobility. One of my favorite all time rebels (more than James Dean and Gandhi) was Huckleberry Finn. One very important part of his story was the assistance he provided to Jim, who was attempting to escape his slave-owner and get to the North. Throughout Huck Finn’s illegal “aiding and abetting” of Jim, his conscience was unrelenting torture. Don’t get me wrong though, because Huck Finn wasn’t afraid of doing jail time for being an accomplice to a serious crime (because slave’s represented very expensive property). His conscience was telling him exactly the same thing as what almost all the protestant Christian preachers of the Deep South were shouting from the pulpit during those days in the United States. The preachers would waive their bibles high, and quote scriptures declaring that god almighty had established “our rulers” and that the social contract of law, sovereignty of the state, and right to property were just and part of god’s plan. It was your duty to give to Cesar what is Cesar’s, to abide by the laws of the land, and to proudly give your life for your country if called to do so in wars that made Cesar rich. I was so very happy that Huck Finn told himself “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”

    Best Regards,

    1. Thanks for adding so generously to the discussion, Paul. You’re absolutely right, there is always a larger social, political, and societal context to every affirmative and every refusal. Such is the nature of the human condition. My broader point though, is to always try to refuse in a controlled way, rather than in frustration or anger. That’s not to say anger might not be involved in a refusal, but ultimately the apparent politeness is just a symptom of self-control.

      As always you leave me with much to mull over. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  3. hello Mr. Samir,
    I am a mother of a three year old kid, i always fall short of my heartbeat when i have to say a no, this lands me in a lot of problems later. My life is busy, but a lot of people try to push their work on me, how can i refuse them , pls guide.
    i will try your “no thankyou’ and see .
    Manisha Nigam.

    1. Hello Manisha,

      When dealing with children, and more specifically your own children, you do have more nuances to consider than the mere act of saying ‘no’, I agree. Your responsibility to your children goes beyond dealing with them as mere people, and also in educating them and making them understand and grow into better adults.

      My parents got around such things, or perhaps faced them head-on, by being straight-forward and honest, and by treating their children like adults in some ways. When they said no, we were usually given a reason, an explanation. Too often parents treat children like property and not like human beings who deserve explanations. When a ‘no’ is a judgement, children can often grow to resent it. When a ‘no’ is an explained consequence of other things and reasons, children can be surprisingly mature about it. Trust your child and they will generally trust you, your explanations, your reasons, and your decisions. Keep in mind that they are still individuals who will have their own opinions, but teach them to think and behave maturely by being a good example, and they will often grant you the same consideration.

      For the adults who push work on you, polite refusals are often best. It will make you unpopular for a while, but people get used to things in time and accept it.

      My best wishes to you and your child,

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