8 Ways to Say NO, Because Saying NO Makes Room for YES

The pursuit of happiness. It’s in the United States’ Declaration of Independence.  And it seems to be important to everyone. As an integral life coach, I hope that my clients all find more happiness in their lives.  I ask a lot of questions and I listen to a lot of answers. I know that there is no one “right” answer to my questions — but there are some claims and generalizations that I’m willing to make.  About happiness, I offer this:

pursue what’s important to you,
and you might be a little happier each day

Of course, in order to do this you need:

  1. to know what’s important
  2. to know how to pursue it
  3. to actually pursue it.


So, what’s important to you?  What brings you joy?  What are the things that you want in your life?

Options are limitless but for most of us, the list will likely include some of the following: our partner, family, friends, financial stability, long-term job prospects, health, and laughter. Am I close?

It might be a simple question but the answer is important, so it is worth writing down.  Since it won’t take long, why not stop right now to make a list?  Think about what is most important to you and quickly write down the first things that come to mind.  Aim for your very own top ten list to start.  You can refine it later.  Ready?

Once you have a list, you will have a very clear picture of what is, using Greg McKeown’s language, essential.  McKeown is the author of “Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” The book is not about less stuff, but about doing less of what you DON’T want to do, and MORE of what you DO want to do.  In other words, pursuing the essential.

But in order to pursue the essential, you might have to start saying “no” to the non-essential.  You might have to say no more often because:

saying NO, makes room for YES

McKeown offers many examples of what essentialists do compared to the non-essentialists.  In the case of saying “no,” a non-essentialist “avoids saying no to avoid the social awkwardness and pressure, (and) says yes to everything.”  By contrast, an essentialist “dares to say no firmly, resolutely and gracefully, (and) says yes only to the things that really matter.” This makes it clear:

say YES to what matters and gracefully say NO to what doesn’t.

Saying no is much better than agreeing to something and then being unhappy, or grumpy, or ineffective.

But saying no might take some practice. To help you get started, McKeown offers 8 specific ways to say no:

  1. “The awkward pause”:  don’t answer immediately.  Pause and count to 5, or just wait for the other person to fill in the gap. This one would be really difficult for me, but maybe you can master it
  2. “The soft ‘no’ or the ‘no, but’ “:  offer some modification to your no such as another time, later, or something else. One tip is to practice saying no by email
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” I love this one.  It buys you time to reflect on your priorities
  4. “Email bounce-back”:  like a vacation out-of-the-office email, use an auto-response such as “I’m working on a project and not available to respond until (insert date)” to create space for deep work — it’s a temporary carte blanche “no” to every email, invite and request
  5. “Yes. What should I de-prioritize?”:  if your manager wants to add something to your list, let her or him be the one to decide what you should put on the back burner
  6. “Say it with humor”: try saying “Nope” in a playful but firm tone. This gets increasingly easy once people get used to you being someone who is willing to say no
  7. “Use the words ‘You are welcome to X; I am willing to Y.’ ”  For example, “I can’t drive you but you can borrow my car.” For those who like being the helper, this is a good one
  8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested”:  We are not the only ones who can complete a task  — someone else could do it and you could be helping with your suggestion.

I have variation to McKeown’s #8.  Rather than just suggest someone else, you could go one step further:  “I don’t think that’s going to work for my schedule, but would you like me to call a few people for you, to help you find someone?”  I’ve used this often in the volunteer world when a friend of mine calls to ask me to staff a school event. I find it very hard to say no to a friend, even when it’s clear that I can’t do what she’s asking. Recognizing that she has a list of people she can reach out to, many of whom I know, I can offer to help her by making some of those calls.  The response to this is varied — from “Oh, that would be great. Can you call so-and-so first?” to “Thank you, but I think I’m fine.”  My offer to help makes it much easier for me to say no, and I hope it makes it easier for my friend to accept the “no.”

It’s important to know what is essential to you — not only does it help clarify what you want and don’t want to do, but it can provide the extra backup you need to gracefully say no.  But don’t let the lack of a list stop you from starting to say no today.  Trust your gut:  if someone asks you to do something and you have a “sinking feeling” then you know that the answer is a graceful no — or maybe a partial no, since there is no “one” right answer.