The subtle art of saying No (and guilt-free ways to say it)

A copywriter in a yellow jumper holds her hand up in a STOP gesture. The blog title says: The subtle art of saying no and how to say it

I was chatting with my mum last weekend.

We were into our usual round-up of kid updates from my end, gardening updates from her end and the ever-constant weather comparisons.

She told me she’d been resting a lot as she hurt her back.

She’d been moving bloody big boulders in the garden and thought she could do it all herself.

You see, my dad passed away last year, and that moment was a factory reset for so many parts of mum’s life. She’s been tackling credit card payments (online no less!), holiday bookings, irrigation breakdowns and literal heavy lifting.

So, we’re talking about resting, heat packs and the free physio she’s now eligible for when she also mentions playing 27 holes in an upcoming golf tournament.

“WTAF MUM?! 27 holes of golf?! How is that possibly good for your back?” I demanded to know. As only an indignant daughter can.

Apparently, a new golfer joined the club and didn’t have a partner.


“So, she needed a partner”, mum explained (as if that explained anything).

And it had to be you and your bad back because…?

“Well, because there was no one else.”

I bet there was, I muttered.

Someone needed help and she must offer it. She can’t let anyone down (her exact words). Even if it means playing 27 holes of golf with a bad back and no golf buggy.  

A lifetime of people pleasing is hard to break.

But here’s the thing.

When you say yes to one thing, you say no to something else.

Yes to playing this golf game = No to much needed recovery time.

Yes to a client who has your Spidey-Sense going = No to a right-fit client you no longer have time for.

Yes to urgent work = No to time for yourself.

I’m not saying you should always say no. Yes can also mean new opportunities, new relationships, new experiences and new growth.

But there is always a cost. Something you have to say no to.

The challenge is to take a minute before you respond, asking:

What am I saying no to if I say yes to this?

The answer might come quickly. It might take some digging. What you say no to might be a small and palatable sacrifice. It might give you pause for thought.

We want yeses that move us further towards our goals and nos that don’t turn into regrets.

Saying no has power.

You should say no when the request makes you uncomfortable. When it crosses your boundaries. When you feel obligated or you’re overloaded.

Saying no takes a willingness to be uncomfortable, to hold boundaries and take risks.

But it can also make space for the things you really want.

Guilt-free phrases you can bust out anytime

  • Sadly, I have something else going on.
  • I have another commitment.
  • I wish I were able to.
  • I’m afraid I can’t.
  • I just don’t have the bandwidth/time/availability for that right now.
  • I’m honoured you asked me, but I simply can’t.
  • Thanks for thinking of me. However, I’m not able to.
  • I’m sorry, I’m not able to fit this in.
  • Unfortunately, I already have plans. Maybe next time!
  • Thanks, but that’s not going to work for me.

Mix and match these to find the phrases that suit you best.

My secret weapon when it comes to holding the no is… silence. Deliver your no, then shut your mouth. You don’t have to explain or justify.

As someone who always fills the silence, I find it hard (really hard), but with practice, I’m letting go of a lifetime of people pleasing and embracing no as essential self-care.

A brief exercise

Do you journal? Let’s journal together. Take a pen and some paper and recall the last time you said yes when you would have preferred to say no.

Set a timer for 5 minutes and write out what would have been possible if you’d said no.

I’d love to know what comes up for you.

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