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The Art of Saying ‘No’

– By  Jo Ellen Grzyb and Robin Chandler

Many of us don’t like the idea of having to tell people they can’t do something. Even when we know that using the ‘n’ word is a necessity, there can be so much anxiety around the possible consequences of using it that we often don’t say anything at all, or agree to things we’d rather not do, or get landed with projects we don’t really want, and so on.

So how can you learn to say ‘no’ in a way that’s manageable, deals with the difficult feelings and actually might be some fun? 

Let’s clear up one thing first. The art of saying no is not just a question of assertiveness. For example, the old cliché about being ‘assertive rather than aggressive’ suggests that assertiveness is the only way to deal with difficult situations. It isn’t. If you are being attacked or abused then aggressively fighting back may well be an appropriate response. The key word here is ‘appropriate’.

So yes, aggressiveness may be appropriate. Assertiveness may be appropriate. But there are many other choices of behaviour that could be equally appropriate.

So the art of saying no is really about changing your behaviour to fit the circumstances. Using charm, humour, telling the truth or even deliberate manipulation may well get you what you want without having to attempt behaviour that may go against your personality. If you add a dash of fun or mischief, the art of saying no becomes a realistic prospect rather than a difficult mountain to climb. 

Saying No

Here are some pointers of what could make it easier to say ‘no’.

If you’re saying something serious, notice whether you smile or not. Smiling gives a mixed message and weakens the impact of what you’re saying.

If someone comes over to your desk and you want to appear more in charge, stand up. This also works when you’re on the phone. Standing puts you on even eye level and creates a psychological advantage.

If someone sits down and starts talking to you about what they want, avoid encouraging body language, nods and a-has. Keep your body language as still as possible.

Avoid asking questions that would indicate you’re interested (such as, ‘When do you need it by?’ or ‘Does it really have to be done by this afternoon?’ etc.)

It’s all right to interrupt! A favourite technique of ours is to say something along the lines of, ‘I’m really sorry; I’m going to interrupt you.’ Then use whatever tool fits the situation. If you let someone have their whole say without interrupting, they could get the impression you’re interested and willing. All the while they get no message to the contrary; they will assume you’re on board with their plan.

Pre-empt. As soon as you see someone bearing down on you (and your heart sinks because you know they’re going to ask for something), let them know you know: “Hi there! I know what you want. Wish I could help you out, but I just can’t.”

Pre-empt two. Meetings often require a degree of pre-emption. “I need to let everyone know right at the top, that I can’t fit anything else into my schedule for the next two weeks (or whatever).”

Any of these little tips can help you feel more confident and will support your new behaviour. For that’s what this is: If you’re someone whom others know they can take advantage of (they may not even be doing it on purpose, you’re just an easy mark!) you need to indicate by what you do that things have changed.

Changing Others by Changing Yourself

It is too easy to blame others when things go wrong in our lives or when we’re feeling hard done by. A lot of us wish that the person we are in conflict with or feel intimidated by would change. Then everything would be all right.  ‘If only he’d listen to me, then I wouldn’t be so frightened.’ ‘If only she’d stop complaining about my work, I’d be much happier.’

‘If only’ puts the onus on the other person to change and makes them responsible for how we feel. By using some of the tools outlined above, you can get a sense of being in charge of situations rather than a victim to what other people want. Take away the ‘if only’ excuse and you also take away the need to blame and make the other person wrong. By getting better at the art of saying no we can start to take charge of most situations and make them all right for ourselves. And none of us has to change our whole personalities to create this more satisfying outcome! 

Here’s an Analogy we use in The Nice Factor Book:

Let’s say you’re a burglar. There’s a row of identical houses and you’re sizing up five of them. The first house has a Yale lock on the front door. The second house has a Yale and a Chubb lock on the front door. The third house has a Yale and a Chubb lock on the front door and bars on the window. The fourth house has a Yale and a Chubb lock on the front door, bars on the window and burglar alarm. The fifth house has a Yale and a Chubb lock on the front door, bars on the window, a burglar alarm and a Rottweiler.

Which would you burgle?

When you make it easy for other people, they will naturally keep coming back. By learning more effective ways of saying ‘no’, you will start to become burglar-proof.


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Jo Ellen Grzyb and Robin Chandler

Psychotherapist Jo Ellen Grzyb and actor Robin Chandler are co-founders of Impact Factory. They offer bespoke tailored training in areas such as communication skills, leadership, presentations, team-building and interpersonal skills. They have also been running programmes on The Art of Saying No for more than seven years and feel so passionately about it that they wrote a book that deals with it: The Nice Factor Book (Are you too Nice for your own good?).

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