How to say no without hurting someone’s feelings

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If you’ve ever wondered how to say no without hurting someone’s feelings, chances are you’re a highly compassionate, empathetic, and helpful person. Maybe even a yes-person. Saying yes can be good, but not when saying yes is to your detriment. Saying no helps you stick to your priorities and to stand by your values. This article helps you learn to say no without hurting someone’s feelings, without being rude and without feeling guilty.

Why do we say yes when we really want to say no?

There are many reasons you might say yes when you really want to say no. Maybe you can’t say no without feeling guilty or like you’ve let someone down. This might be linked to a need to be perfect, or being a people-pleaser, or simply because you’re a kind and giving person. So, you say yes, but immediately regret saying it and start kicking yourself for not saying no (which is somewhat pointless, given that you’ve already committed. Especially since you are not the type to go back on your word).

It’s great to be giving and help others, but you have limited time, capacity, and energy (mental and physical).  If you keep on saying yes and agreeing to everything, you’ll quickly start feeling overwhelmed and stressed, because you spend more time doing things for others than doing things for yourself. Agreeing to everything can allow people take advantage of you. Worst of all, saying yes to everyone leaves very little left over for you.

Is obedience entrenched in people?

Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment is probably one of the most famous studies on obedience ever conducted. Milgram wanted to figure out if nations other than Germany would differ in their degree of conformity to authority. In Milgram’s experiment, participants took part in a “learning task”, designed to investigate how punishment—in this case, electric shock—affected learning. Volunteers thought they were participating in pairs, but their partner and the experimenter were co-conspirators of Milgram’s. The draw to determine who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner” was rigged; the volunteer was always the teacher.

The pairs were moved into separate rooms, connected by a microphone. If the learner gave an incorrect answer to the question, the teacher (the volunteer) had to administer an electric shock as punishment, increasing the shock by 15-volt increments with each error. The experimenter (as co-conspirator) was there to oversee the experiment, and act as the authority figure. At 75 volts, the learner either banged on the wall or started to scream; from 150 volts to 330 volts, he protested with increasing intensity and pleaded for the teacher to stop, often complaining about a fictitious heart problem; at 330 volts, he absolutely refused to continue. After that the co-conspirator (the learner) would no longer respond to the teacher’s questions. Most participants (the teachers) would ask the experimenter whether they should continue. The experimenter then responded with a series of commands:

  1. “Please continue.”
  2. “The experiment requires that you continue.”
  3. “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
  4. “You have no other choice; you must go on.”

Whenever the teacher hesitated, the experimenter would use one of the above commands or remind him that “although the shocks may be painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage.”

Milgram was horrified by the results of the experiment. In early pilot studies, most participants (65%) proved to be fully obedient to the experimenter, continuing through to the extreme 450-volt limit, despite verbally expressing their disapproval.

How to say no without hurting someone’s feelings: What Milgram’s experiment teaches us

According to Milgram, mindless obedience to authority has been ingrained from birth to maintain social order within a hierarchical society.

There have been several follow up studies to verify the experiment and many ethical debates and concerns about its validity and the effect of coercion, but the conclusion that humans tend to follow orders given by an authority figure holds true. People struggle to say no, even if the request may conflict with their personal beliefs, but often just because they want to fit in, be helpful, or don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

Blue-footed booby success formula: How to say no without hurting someone’s feelings

  1. Avoid saying the word ‘no’ which can be perceived as negative. First start with something positive, then use words like I appreciate the offer, but I don’t have the capacity to take this on. Or I already have plans. Don’t be too specific.
  2. Respond immediately. Don’t wait for a later time or say that you’ll think about it. The more time you take, the more pressure you’ll feel (whether it’s from yourself or the other party). By responding immediately, you will be seen as confident and assertive.
  3. Be straight up. Don’t over-explain or excuse yourself. This can be tough to do, but when you start analysing, explaining, or excusing yourself, you lose credibility and people may think you are being dishonest. Practice refusal without giving a reason.
  4. Watch your body language. Many experts have analysed the effect of non-verbal communication on the other person’s reaction. If your tone of voice and body language aren’t congruent when you say no, the other party can get offended or react negatively. Make sure your body language is congruent with what you’re saying so that you come across and determined and confident.
  5. Pre-plan your no. Many studies show that writing down when and where you plan to implement a specific behaviour, you double the odds of following through on your plans. You can pre-plan your no for specific situations by writing it down. For example: If Rene asks me to do work that wasn’t part of my original brief, I’ll say: “unfortunately this is outside our agreed scope of work. I’ll get back to you with a quote for this tomorrow before 5”. By intentionally planning your no, you make it easier to gracefully say no.

Say no to say yes to your values and priorities

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

― Warren Buffett

There’s an opportunity cost to every choice we make. This means that when we say yes to one thing, we’re saying no to another thing simultaneously.

By saying yes to requests from others, you’re actually saying no to your own priorities and goals.

By learning to say no without hurting someone’s feelings, you can prioritize your time and say yes to the things that matter to you the most.

When have you last said no? Let us know in the comments below or shoot us an email.  We’d love to hear if you’ve tried any of our ways to say no without hurting someone’s feelings, or if you’ve got another technique to share.

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