Mastering the art
of saying no to others. 
December 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

One of the most difficult things to do in any kind of relationship is to say ‘no’ to someone. Whether it is a friend, someone you work with, or your mom and dad – turning down a request or saying no will always be hard. After all, they may get upset, be disappointed with you, get angry, or stop wanting to spend time with you. That’s why most people don’t say no, grant requests, and do as they are asked – even when they don’t want to, even when it costs them in some way.

Research studies have confirmed that conflict-avoidant people tend to avoid saying ‘no’ because of the negative feelings that saying ‘no’ evokes.  For most people, being told ‘no’ is socially embarrassing. To avoid the embarrassment of saying no, people will prefer to grant the request. These feelings can be so unpleasant that it is easier to avoid saying ‘no’ in the moment than accept and live with all of the difficulties that often arise from granting the request. 

Two important skills to master

There are two skills to learn when setting boundaries – learning how to say and how to manage expectations.

Skill #1:  Mastering the “yes …. but.”

One of the most effective ways of saying no is to communicate that you don’t want to do it in the form of a yes-but. ‘Yes-but’ is designed to help you avoid the difficult and painful situation of having to say ‘no’ to someone.

Here is an example of how it works for a friend, colleague or family member that would like you to go out on Friday:


Yes, I would really like to go out this Friday. It sounds like so much fun. Thank you for asking. Unfortunately, I have another obligation that night. What about next week? I would really enjoy going. 

Comment: There are three crucial parts to a yes-but response. In the first part (yes), you communicate your gratitude and excitement about what is being asked. This lets the person know that you really value their suggestion, that you would enjoy what they are suggesting and that you are grateful for their idea. This part is designed to soften the rejection of their idea and make the person feel good about themselves. In the second part (but), you indicate that you will not be able to do it. In this part, you don’t actually say that you cannot do it, just that you have another obligation. The ‘but’ can be anything that rejects the request (e.g., unfortunately, I have / but, I am unable). This is the part that gets you out of the activity. Here, you don’t actually say that you cannot or don’t want to. You just indicate that it is not possible for some other reason (i.e., you have an obligation). It is this second part that will reduce the chance that you are going to feel bad for turning down the request. In the third part (the follow-up), you indicate that you could do the activity but at a different time.

Tip: The final part of the yes-but is optional. You don’t have to actually follow up with a different time. However, if it is a friend, colleague or family member, you will have to do this at some point. Just make sure that you suggest a time that is going to be better for you.

Tip: Practice what you are going to say. If you are not comfortable using yes-but, it will not be as effective. With practice, most people find that it is easier than they think, largely because it allows them to avoid having to say ‘no.’

Keep in mind: You will likely have to modify the ‘but’ part depending on who is asking and what the request is. If this is a colleague, manager or boss, you will need to provide more explanation about why you cannot do it. Similarly, if you are really being pressured to do something, you will need to provide more information about why you cannot. This brings us to the second skill – managing expectations. Keep in mind that you will likely have to say ‘yes’ to the requests of others sometimes. The goal of these strategies is not to brush off people continuously, just enough to make sure that you have time for yourself.

How hard is it for you to say no?

Take our conflict avoidance questionnaire to help get a sense of how hard it is for you to say no to others. We’ll give you feedback on what makes it hard for you to say no to others.  Take the quiz.


Skill #2: Reminding others of your obligations

Sometimes a mere ‘yes-but’ will not be enough. Friends, colleagues, and even bosses will continue to ask, maybe even insist that you do something that you don’t have time to do or want to do. Mentioning your list of obligations is a reminder to other people that granting their request, even an easy one, does take time away from you and everything else that you have to do.

Here is an example of how to communicate how busy you are to a manager or boss:


Yes, I would really like to go to or take [this activity] on . I think it is really important and a really good idea. It would be a lot of fun. Thank you for thinking of me. However, I have seven other obligations already this week. [list them all]. My plan is to fit it all in over the next week or two. Would it be alright if I tackle everything else that is on the go? [list everything again], and then take on this activity.  

Comment: Once again, you can see many of the important elements of a ‘yes-but.’ There is an acknowledgement that you value the request and you are grateful for being considered. But in this response, before the ‘but’ and the ‘follow-up’ where you ask to postpone this request until some other time in the future that is convenient for you (not them), you remind the person of everything else that you have to do. In this part, you need to list everything, mentioning all of it with enthusiasm. The goal here is to make the person reconsider their response by reminding them that you have many other important things to do. In the final part, you make an explicit and polite request to postpone the activity.

Tip: Make sure that you list all of the things that you are doing in a polite, matter-of-fact tone that communicates your enthusiasm for those activities. This will increase your chances of the other person reconsidering their request.

Still skeptical? 
This strategy is easier to do than it seems and more effective than you might think. Try it out and let us know how it worked. 

Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The really fundamental attribution error in social psychological research. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 1-15.

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