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Learning to Say “No”

Values convey what is essential to people in their lives. To live in line with personal values is a process of prioritization. Individuals must decide whether specific actions and experiences add something significant to their existence.

Many people need to make choices that align with their values. Living in line with personal values requires the ability to filter what is personally meaningful and to “say no” to activities that resonate insufficiently with personal values.

In Greg McKeown’s book ‘Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,’ the idea of saying “no” to increase valued living is put forward. McKeown suggests that we can learn to say “no” gracefully to prioritize doing things that serve us.

But saying “no” is often easier said than done. As humans, we say yes when we want to say no for several reasons: we don’t want to disappoint people; we are worried we’ll miss out on a great opportunity; we are scared of rocking the boat or burning a bridge; or we want to be liked and to be considered agreeable and helpful people. I provide general guidelines and practical advice on how to say no in the service of personal values.

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Photo by Cup of Couple on

This tool provides seven general guidelines for saying no gracefully.

  • Tap into your values
    Saying no to someone can be easier by tapping into our values and doing what feels right. Research shows that living according to our values benefits our health and well-being. Thus, saying yes to someone or something that commits you to something that feels “wrong” is doing yourself a disservice. When we feel the tension between what we think is right and what someone asks us to do, we experience value incongruence. Navigating these moments by tuning in to our values will allow you to say “no” more easily. For example, we are being asked on a date on the same night that we have a friend’s birthday dinner. If the friendship was something that you valued highly, you might remind yourself of this and thus more easily decline the invitation to go on a date.
  • Separate the request from the relationship
    Saying no to someone’s request can often feel like we are saying no to the person rather than the demand. This misconception can make us feel more pressure to ‘be a decent person’ because we don’t want to hurt the other person or our relationship by saying no. Recognizing that declining the request is not the same as dropping the person enables us to do what’s right without fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
  • Say no without actually saying the word “no.”
    We don’t have to use “no” to convey that we are declining a request. For example, the statements “I would love to attend, but unfortunately I’m overcommitted,” “I’m afraid I don’t have the availability at the moment,” and “Thank you, but unfortunately I am not available” clearly and politely convey the message “no” without ever using the word.
  • Focus on what you will gain by saying no
    Rather than focusing on what you will lose by saying no, consider what you will achieve. All too often, our mind jumps to the negative (i.e., the fear of missing out) when faced with a decision. However, we can reorient our attention to what we will gain by “missing out” to make it easier to say no. Say, for example, you plan to cook dinner at home with your girlfriend when your friends invite you. You can choose to either focus on what you are potentially missing out on by staying in with your girlfriend (e.g., potential laughs, jokes, friendly banter, and bonding), or you can reorient your attention to what you are gaining (e.g., a wholesome and loving evening, closeness, and feeling proud of yourself for sticking to your word).
  • Recognize the cost of saying yes
    When someone asks us for something, they ask us to give them something. This is a cost. Recognizing what you are giving away by saying yes can help you to say no.
  • Opt for being respected over being popular While you may lose some popularity by saying (usually only temporarily), you will likely gain respect. Saying no shows others that you value your time, stand up for yourself, and choose to do what’s right for you.
  • Be precise rather than vague and non-committal
    Sometimes we attempt to ‘soften the blow’ of saying no by giving a vague, non-committal response such as “I’ll do my best to come” or “I’ll try and get out of work early to make it.” When we respond this way, when we have no intention of actually going, the person on the receiving end, the person we are trying to ‘save’ from saying no to, is worse off. Being vague and non-committal also delays your eventual “no, ” making it that much harder on you.

Learning to say no is one of my top priorities at this moment.

With Love,


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