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How to Say 'No' to Anyone Without Feeling Guilty

"Sorry, I can't," is a great response and the only one you need ever give.
How to Say 'No' to Anyone Without Feeling Guilty
Image credit: 10'000 Hours | Getty Images
VIP Contributor
Entrepreneur and Connector
9 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Early in my career, I had a serious problem; I said “yes” to everything. It didn’t matter how busy I was. It wasn’t a big deal if I wasn’t anticipating the request. Who honestly wants to help someone move their stuff from one part of the city, state or world -- and stick that junk somewhere else? Sometimes I said "yes" to what amounted to taking on someone else's "reject busy work."

Obviously, I wasn’t the only person in the world, at that time, who couldn’t say “no.” It’s something that most of the human race struggles with. After all, you don’t want to offend those you care about. You don’t want others to consider you as a selfish or irresponsible person.

Eventually, I had to put my foot down. There were my own priorities to consider, and I was neglecting these because I was continually putting others ahead of myself. As a consequence, I felt stressed because I was always playing catch-up. But, the light bulb indeed went on when I came across this quote from Derek Sivers, “If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about something, say ‘no.'”

That is still one of my favorite quotes and, I refer to it whenever someone requests my time. Certainly, I still don't relish moving someone's stuff -- but I will help with that task -- even if I'm not yelling, "hell yeah." However, I am a little more selective on the "yes's" than I was before. Even in the selection process -- it may not make some decisions any more comfortable. There may always remain times when we feel a little guilty about not helping someone out.

Thankfully, I learned that it is possible to say “no” to almost anyone without feeling guilty by doing the following.

Related: Reading One Book a Week Won't Make You Successful

Establish your proper boundaries and policies -- early and well.

“Saying no comfortably and without guilt requires you to actually think about what you stand for. Why are you saying no?"  Patti Breitman said this in How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty. “As you learn to eliminate unwanted obligations from your life, what are you making room for?”

For example, did you decline to take on a new client because that would have meant sacrificing quality time with your family? In this case, your priority was to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Although the money would have been great, you could justify your decision because it wasn’t as important as spending time with your loved ones.

Breitman also suggests that you live by a set of principles. This could be something like giving to others without expecting something in return or having a tradition like a family game night on Fridays. These little rules for yourself “implies that you’ve given the matter considerable thought on a previous occasion and learned from experience that what the person is requesting is unwise.” Additionally, it conveys “that you’ve got a prior commitment you can’t break.”

Related: Getting Into Entrepreneurial Shape Means Working Your Mind

Just say “no.”

No matter how awkward it may feel, you need to be clear about your response. Being wishy-washy or beating around the bush isn’t fair to the other party. They need a timely response to make the appropriate plans and may perceive your indirect response as a “yes” and then you’re committed.

If you can’t take on a project or attend an event, give them an honest and brief explanation. If you’ve established boundaries and policies, this shouldn’t be a problem. You could respond with, “Sorry, I can’t make your party. Friday nights are family game nights.”

But, also remember you don't owe anyone an excuse unless you want to give one. "Oh, sorry, I can't," is just fine.

Related: 8 Ways to Say 'No' So You Say 'Yes' to What Matters Most

Offer an alternative.

Just because you’ve declined an individual's request doesn’t mean that you still can’t help them. If they’ve inquired about a job, you could refer them to a colleague or another business. If they ask you have availability for a new assignment, let them know you’re booked this week but are free after that.

Personally, this is one of my favorite techniques. You’re still offering to help but it’s on your terms. A benefit in offering other suggestions or support is that you don’t feel guilty about saying “no.” It’s a win-win.

Be assertive, but remain courteous.

What if you’ve checked your calendar app and realize that you’re booked solid for the next month? You can still be decisive, while also being professional and polite. Your response could be something like, “Thanks for reaching out to me -- I really appreciate it. Unfortunately, I do not have any availability until next month. If you like, please email next month to check my availability.”

Don’t respond immediately.

You don’t want to leave someone hanging, but you don’t have to respond to their request instantly. Let your friend or family member know that you have to review your calendar and that you’ll get back to them as soon as possible. Besides checking your availability, you need this time to see if the request gels with your boundaries and policies. Sometimes this may only take a couple of minutes, while other times you may need to sleep on it.

Know your value.

Underestimating our value is, in my opinion, the main reason why we say “yes” too often. We thrive on the approval of others. If we turn them down, they may assume that we’re careless or don’t know how to manage our time correctly. Obviously, we don’t want that reputation -- especially when you’re just-starting-out in your business.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you always say “yes” others may take advantage of that. As a result, many people will frequently assign you new responsibilities or ask “for a minute” of your time because they know you won’t say “no.”

While you want to be reliable, you don’t always have to put the needs of others ahead of your own. The best course of action is to know how much your time is worth and placing more value on your opinion then of others.

Related: How to Calculate the True Monetary Value of Your Time

Practice your response.

Yeah -- practicing responses may sound a little out of there. But, as I’m sure you know, practice makes perfect -- and this even applies to how you’ll deny an inquiry. When you have some downtime, practice your response by typing out an email or text -- definitely, do not hit send -- actually -- don't fill in the "to whom" at all.

Then, look yourself in the mirror and say “no” out loud. Again, this may be uncomfortable, but, this is a simple and effective way to prepare yourself for saying “no.”

Be more selfish.

There have been negative associations with the word “selfish.” But, remind yourself that the problem often comes from highly adept manipulators -- and you don't have to have any of it.  At the same time, being a little more selfish may be a good thing -- since it can help reduce anxiety and stress. Think about it. You skip the gym to go to happy hour with your friends. You help someone else on a project before completing your own work. Or, you skip a doctor’s appointment to meet with a potential client. Over time, your mental and physical health suffers.

If there is one reason why you should start saying “no” more often is that you need time to take care of yourself. If you’re a wreck -- then how can you possibly help anyone else out? Self-care is empowering and healthy both mentally and physically.

Related: Your Secret to Success? Be More Selfish

Use the ‘Broken Record’ technique.

In my experience, most people will move on if you clearly explain why you can’t help or meet with them. Unfortunately, some people can’t accept being rejected. I don't get this type of reaction from others anymore -- but I did get those manipulators who wouldn't take no for an answer for a long time. Following my initial decision to do better things for myself, the determination to rise up was present in myself. They will try to break you down until you reconsider. Until you master self-care -- you will be of little use to others. I told myself this fact -- over and over. "Do well for yourself now -- so that later -- you can do more for others."

If you ever find yourself in this situation -- repeat the same "sorry, I can't," response -- no matter how many times they ask you. Be polite and empathetic. But, do not let them talk you into anything. Their endgame is to have you go from a “no” to a “maybe” to a “yes."

"Sorry, I can't," is a great response and the only one you need ever give.

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