How to say ‘no’ and not feel guilty about it

In general, we all struggle at times to say no. 

Saying ‘no’ to our family, ‘no’ to our friends, ‘no’ to our boss, clients or even just those people who are persistent or borderline pushy can be challenging, but inevitably, if we’re saying ‘yes’ when we really want to say ‘no’ – then we end up feeling resentful, overwhelmed and frustrated. 

I’d go as far as to say that everyone needs to read (and re read) this article from Inc, which not only unpacks why we find it so hard to say no, but also gives some great advice on how to say no without feeling guilty – with practical ways to tackle common situations during which you might find yourself saying ‘no worries’ when you should be replying with ‘no thanks’.  

Below are the key takeaways from the article:

Consider how you might have said yes to any of the following situations, despite already being busy or overstretched:

  • Someone asking you for your expertise for free
  • Being asked to take on extra jobs and responsibilities without financial renumeration 
  • Being invited to attend events and meetings which are not to your benefit

Speaking up for yourself can be especially difficult for those who are active or recovering people-pleasers. 

Saying no brings up all sorts of fears:

  • People will dislike me
  • They’ll think I’m a prima donna
  • What does it say about me if I’m not willing to help other people? 

While these fears are rooted in kernels of truth, it’s also true that saying no is a skill you need to learn. Declining opportunities is key to protecting your time and energy. If you fail to learn how to learn how to assertively push back or kindly decline opportunities, then you are not only not honouring yourself, you’ll also struggle to do your best work or be the best friend or colleague.  

Here are some ways to say no more gracefully, so that you can have strong boundaries without alienating other people. 

Apologise, tell the truth, and communicate as early as possible.

Don’t wait until the last minute to wiggle out of a commitment. As soon as you know that you can’t (or don’t want to) follow through, communicate. Apologising will go a long way, and so will telling the truth. Don’t feel like you must make up an elaborate excuse. Saying something like, “I’m so sorry. I stretched myself too thin, and I won’t be able to make it,” is sufficient. The person may be disappointed, yet because you spoke up tactfully, they’re not likely to feel deeply hurt or insulted.

Explain what you can do. 

In his book The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, Harvard professor William Ury explains the genius “Yes-No-Yes” response, which can be used in everything from social situations to workplace negotiations and beyond.

It has three parts:

  1. Saying “yes” to yourself and your priorities
  2. Saying “no” in a way that sets clear boundaries
  3. Saying “yes” to affirm the relationship and offer another solution

Let’s say you’re contacted by a friend who’s applying for a job with your company. They want you to put in a good word with HR. You don’t feel comfortable doing that, but you worry about letting your friend down. You could say something like, “I was so glad to hear that you’re applying for a job here! We would be lucky to have you at the company. I can’t contact HR. I can, however, put you in touch with the person who previously held that job. She might have insight into what makes a strong candidate for this role.”

The best thing about a “positive no” is that it’s genuinely guilt-free. It preserves your relationship and allows you to say “no” without fear. 

Redirect them to other resources

When someone reaches out, ask questions first to get a sense of what they’re looking for and whether a meeting is even necessary. Often you can be helpful by simply pointing the person to a valuable, pre-existing resource like a book, community, or blog post you’ve written: 

“Great question! Here’s a [book/podcast/networking group] that addresses [particular topic]. Check it out – I think you’ll find it helpful!”

With practice, you can learn how to say no without the rush of guilt or low level self-loathing, workable compromises that retains your own happiness and wellbeing without trampling on others feelings.  

Do you struggle to say ‘no’? I’d love to hear any techniques you might have to push back. 



Search the whole etc Playbook...

We have 100's of articles to help you with leadership, growth, talent and running a better business.

Agency Founders Surgery - free 1 to 1.

If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.