How to Practice Saying No

I walked into the restaurant and something didn’t feel right. The prices were too high, the waiter a little stuffy and dismissive, the air a little cold.

I can’t tell you exactly what it was, but I do know that my body was decidedly uncomfortable. While none of the particulars was enough to make a fuss—should I complain about the temperature?—I knew the minute after I walked in and sat down that it wasn’t right.

Social norms would cue me not to make a fuss and to stay where I am. Cognitive dissonance—the idea that we do things in accordance with our beliefs and decisions, to support our earlier actions—would have me stay put because I had already chosen to eat here, and leaving would mean changing my mind.

But my intuition, that feeling in my gut, in my body, knew. Intuition isn’t perfect. Sometimes it takes a moment to settle. Mostly, it takes a willingness to listen, and to listen closely. After being seated, I placed the napkin in my lap and looked across at my man’s face. I could tell he felt equally at odds, if not more so. I leaned over and asked him:

“You okay with this place? I’m not feeling it.”

A look of relief immediately washed across his face. “Yes,” he replied, “I don’t want to be here, either.”

We had already placed our drink orders, and it took another ten minutes to get a waiter back to our table. At that point, I looked at our waiter directly in the eye, smiled, and said, “We’re not staying for dinner after all. Here’s my card, please run us for the drinks, and that’s all we’d like tonight.”

We enjoyed a few sips of our beverages and pushed back our chairs. Within a few minutes, we were gone.

The power of saying no — and the need to practice it.

Sometimes you just need to say no.

No is a muscle that needs to be exercised just as often as yes.

No isn’t always a voice that jumps up and shouts its way into your ear. Sometimes “no” is a subtle whisper that’s only heard if you’ll listen for it.

No, it says, I don’t want to be here. I need you to make space. I need you to rest. 

The small times we say no is a practice in listening. When we practice listening, we tap into the power of our own intuition. Stopping to say no in line at the coffee shop and say, “Actually, I don’t want this coffee anymore; can you gift it to someone else?” is you exercising your right to listen—to yourself.

Saying no is a practice of listening.

When we practice the power of saying no, we build an inner strength of tapping into our intuition. There is a listening that comes from our own gut. Our own bodies already know, if we’re in tune. “I don’t want to be here right now,” your belly might be telling you. “This isn’t the right person for me, I know it,” your body might know intuitively. Itchy skin, wiggly fingers, tired eyes, disinterested neurons—they know.

Sometimes “no” shows up in strange ways (and why it’s okay to change your mind).

Saying no—and making any decision—is skill-building exercise. I don’t always know that I want to say no until after I make a decision — and I realize that now I know what I want.

We don’t always know everything in advance. It’s okay to say no in the middle.

Sometimes I say no and realize later that I wanted to say yes after all. Sometimes I say yes and realize that I wished I had said no earlier. We don’t always have all the information—if we knew how life would turn out, living wouldn’t be so extraordinary. Life is a series of experiments. Sometimes you say yes, and you learn that no would have been wonderful.

In those instances, write your experience into your mind and body. Remember to tell yourself, “Ahh yes, Sarah, here’s a moment when you can remember that no is an answer you’re allowed to give.”

You can also change your mind.

Changing your mind—or rather, making up your mind after receiving more information—is something that we can do. You’re allowed to change your mind after you’ve been seated at a restaurant. You can leave a party after you’ve walked in through the door—by hugging the hostess and saying, “I absolutely love that I got to see you, and I love you dearly, and I need you to know that I’m so tired that I need to get off my feet.”

You are allowed to not know. You are allowed to listen. You are allowed to say no. You are allowed to change your mind.

The power of yes can pull us into commitment that feels overwhelming. Alexandra Franzen has an exceptional resource out right now – a wee book full of scripts on saying no, and when and how to say no. My favorite? Scripts for saying no just because you don’t want to, whether it’s a client you don’t feel like working with, a conference you don’t want to keynote at, or a project you’re too tired to give your time to.

She even has a script for — and I love this so much — friends you just don’t want to spend time with at the moment. Beautiful, wonderful, smart friends that it’s okay to say no to.

You are allowed to say no.

No to clients, no to friends, no to freebies, no to time you don’t want to spend that way.

How to practice saying no:

Start small. The smallest, most insignificant things are the places we begin to cultivate our habits. Say no to the creamer you don’t actually like; put down the coffee once you realize you don’t want it after all. Leave an event early if you’re disinclined to go; say no to the television late at night when your body whispers, Hey You, let’s go to sleep.

Iterate. If you don’t know what you want, experiment with a new response. If your typical response is affirmative, test a small no and see how it feels. (Caution: this can become really fun as you unleash a reprise of your inner two-year old.)

Be kind and generous. The word “no” can still be thoughtful, kind, and sweet.“Gosh, love, I love everything about this event of yours, but I’m overbooked at the moment so I need to say no. I know how important RSVP’s are so I wanted to give you mine even though I won’t get to see your face this time.”  The word “no” can be exercised graciously and lovingly.

What can you say no to?


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8 Responses to How to Practice Saying No

  1. Felicia says:

    I am a new subscriber to your community and love this post. You are so wise and create such an authentic connection through your writing and words. Thank you Sarah!

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you, Felicia! So glad that you’re here and a part of this beautiful crew of people. There are gems in this audience.

  2. Shannon says:

    Boy did I need a reminder of this! I’m definitely a people pleaser. I try to make everyone happy by saying “yes”. But those moments when I decide to say “no”, I feel stronger and happier.

    Great post, Sarah!

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Shannon! It’s something I work on, too. People pleasing is delightful (who doesn’t like making people happy?) — but we also need to cultivate strong, loving “no’s.” Such a challenge!

  3. […] A really important piece about the importance of saying no. “You are allowed to not know. You are allowed to listen. You are allowed to say no. You are allowed to change your mind.” […]

  4. […] Sarah Peck’s excellent post on saying no: sarahkpeck.com/2014/05/no/ […]

  5. There are so many amazing bits to this post. It helps to remind ourselves that ‘no’ is just as valuable of a response as ‘yes” … and I agree that we need to practice with smaller, less scary things. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!