The art of saying “No.”

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How to say no - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento therapist

We all want to get along with our friends and loved ones. Conflict can be uncomfortable or even downright frightening, and most of us try to avoid it when we can. For some, even mild conflict can trigger painful thoughts and feelings. But healthy relationships require boundaries, and sometimes we need to protect those boundaries by saying “No.”

We can’t please everyone. We don’t have superpowers and we can’t be all things to all people. It can be difficult at times to take care of ourselves, much less take care of someone else. If we ignore our own needs and don’t set limits, it is easy to end up feeling stressed, frustrated, or even sick. We can’t help anybody when we are run down. To be able to care for others we need to care for ourselves, and that means setting limits.

So how do we go about saying “No” in a way that is firm, friendly, and effective?

As a start, try following these five steps:

  1. Clearly state your refusal. There’s no point beating around the bush. If your intention is to say “no” then just come right out and say it. Try saying “I’ve decided not to do X,” or “I won’t do Y.” It’s usually best to stay away from saying “I can’t…” unless you really can’t do something. People tend to take “I can’t do X” as an invitation to try to convince you otherwise. The idea isn’t to get into a debate about whether or not you can do something. It’s to clearly communicate that you don’t intend to do something. You may need to repeat yourself a few times if the person is really motivated or isn’t used to you setting limits.

That’s it! You can stop at the first step. It’s your right to say “no” on your terms. But while you don’t have to say anything else, following the next steps can help make things go a little more smoothly.

  1. Acknowledge the other person’s needs or wishes. People are inclined to accept the limit you set if they know that you clearly understood their request.
  2. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Let them know that you understand their disappointment and/or anger at your refusal.
  3. State the reason for your refusal. As with the first step, it helps to be as clear as possible.
  4. If you’d like, try offering a compromise or alternative.

Putting it all together

Here’s an example of all five steps combined. Let’s say a friend really wants you to go to a function this weekend, but you don’t want to go. You could say,

“I’ve decided not to go this weekend. I know that you were really hoping I’d go and you’re probably feeling disappointed. I’ve had a difficult week and think I need to take the weekend to rest. I’d love to do something next weekend, or maybe we can get together for dinner next week and you can tell me how everything went.”

Saying “No” is a skill that takes time to build. If you aren’t used to setting limits, then you might find it difficult at first. Rest assured that setting limits gets easier with practice. If you are having difficulty setting limits and would like some support, talking with a therapist can help.


Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”

– Maggie Kuhn

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