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Saying No

Updated: May 4, 2022

This article has been used with express permission by Helen Palmer, Creator of Self unLimited. To find out more go here.


It’s a small word. It can have big impact.

Are you using it effectively?

Me saying No to Others

I say “No”.

I say “No” to honour my values; to uphold my boundaries; and to focus my precious resources, and my intentions on what’s important.

Earlier this year, I picked up a great book, called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown.

Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”

‘Saying No’ is a discipline. Something to be thoughtful about – that often requires unlearning default habits that really don’t serve me well. As a female of my generation, I was socialised to be accommodating, to be cooperative, to be accepting. Which meant I said “Yes”, in situations where I probably should have said “No”. It felt rude, uncaring – so selfish, even petty to say “No”. Such is the deep enculturation that I needed to expose and unravel. And in moments of extreme stress, it can be easy to slide back into default Yes mode, if I don’t honour my personal commitment to a different discipline.

And it’s not always black and white. Well, that’s what I convinced myself: It gave me some wriggle room between caring for myself, and not appearing to be uncaring to others. But, if I step back, and consider what caring for myself is related too, then I can see that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. As Parker J Palmer (no relation) says: “Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

So saying No, is part of being steward of what I have, that I can offer others.

Parker talks about “listen to true self”, to a voice within. I’m learning all the time to listen to that voice, and to honour what that voice says. This helps me navigate what feels like shades of grey.

Greg in his book on Essentialism, provides me with a new mantra to add to my evolving discipline: “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

Saying No comes with a mix of conflicting emotions: Relief in saying No to things that aren’t good for me; Concern that others might think I don’t care about them; and Determination to stay the course in a discipline that I have chosen to adopt. Each time I exercise this potent power, it gets a little bit easier.

Others saying No to Me

I make offers.

I like it when people say “No”. Surprised?

Saying “No”, tells me they are clear on what’s important to them and they act accordingly.

The “No” often comes with a “Sorry”. This is perplexing, why be Sorry for being clear and protecting what’s important to you? This is one of those cases where an apology is not actually an apology, rather a social nicety to soften the perceived blow in saying No.

I want others to say “No” to me. I want others to say “Yes” to me. Either is valid and valuable.

Some say “Yes” – but for the wrong reasons. Reasons like:

  • Avoid the risk of being disliked or being judged for not wanting to participate.

  • Enjoy the sense of being valued – it’s like getting a compliment and who would refuse that? But that’s all it was – an appreciation of a perceived compliment, not an intention to contribute.

  • Genuinely want to help – however have no capacity. And more significantly are not aware of what capacity they actually have; or are in denial about what is actually spare.

  • Want to return a favour – however, their heart isn’t really in it. So it won’t be a priority for them and they’ll likely avoid doing anything.

  • Excitement in the moment – however this fades quickly for them, and they’ll disappear if another shiny exciting thing comes alone.

Their “Yes” becomes a “No” by default and they become ‘missing in action’. They fail to own up to changed situations and communicate their latest decision.

Some say nothing. At all.

To not communicate is to fail to show up. I’m left not knowing where I stand.

I have an incredibly strong personal value of Integrity, this means: I mean what I say (else I wouldn’t say it), and I say what I mean (sincerely, if I chose to say something).

[Fascinating side note: The word ‘sincere’ comes from the Latin and literally means ‘without wax’. It reflects an ancient practice where sculptors fixed scratches and breaks in their work by filling with wax to give the appearance of undamaged finish. When something was deemed ‘sincere’, it was recognition that the item had no wax fixes, and was fully genuine in appearance.]

To mitigate repeated disappointment, when someone tells me “Yes” – they are going to do something for me, or do something by a certain date, I find myself thinking: Take those words and discount them to be maybe 50% true.

In strong words, I could judge the person to be lying to me or deceiving me, even without overt intention to do so. But that will be the impact of their action, because of the impact of the actions of others who came before them.

I don’t like living in a world, where people’s words can’t be trusted.

So, PLEEEEASE Say No to Me, if that’s what is right for you. Then it will be right for me.

How to say No

Part of the discipline of saying No, is to be prepared with words to use for the outcome you seek.

Keep it simple.

‘No’ is a complete sentence. ~ Anne Lamot

Keep it short.

You don’t have to give a reason. It takes work to add an explanation and likely this labour will be tainted by some emotion. Providing a reason also gives the other person something to work with, if they are inclined to challenge your decision.

Keep it kind.

If there is negative emotion in what you say, it can create a point of escalation, which can lead to defensive behaviour. Choose to add positive emotion. Start with appreciation for the offer or opportunity: “Thank you”. Then follow with “and No”. Avoid using “but” – this unfortunate word has the effect of negating what was previously said. So if you don’t want to nullify your kindness and gratitude, replace “but” with “and”.

To reduce any emotional angst in using these words – prepare your generic text and keep it somewhere handy. As digital text, you can easily cut-n-paste it into a reply message when you need it; and on a sticky note, that is near your eyeline for places where you speak on the phone.

What should you say “No” to today? Do you have anything outstanding to which you should say “No”? Get things sorted – and go do your best work!



Helen Palmer, Founder of Self unLimited, has not followed a traditional path in her ‘career’, nor does she intend to. It’s been her personal experience that she’s made plans, then life happened and things went in a direction that wasn’t anticipated. As a consequence she’s fascinated by the emergent and serendipitous approach to life and work. She thinks about ways to help others navigate the future of work, given the ambiguous possibilities and opportunities if there is courage to take that journey. And for good measure, she likes to inject humour and originality into her work.


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