Saying no to people can be extremely difficult, especially when we expect others to react negatively.
In order to avoid feeling guilty for offending others, we often give in to people’s demands.
But this leads to overwhelm, stress and loss of self-confidence, because we spend more time doing things for others, instead of doing things we need for ourselves.
By learning how to say no to others, you can reclaim valuable time and energy to focus on what matters most to you.
Before we discuss the five best strategies to achieve this, it’s important to first resolve a bigger question: Why do we say yes when we really mean no?
Why We Say Yes When We Mean No
“You have the right to say no without feeling guilty.”
― Manuel J. Smith
In July 1961—three months after the trial of Adolf Eichmann (a former Nazi SS Officer and major organizer of the Holocaust)—Professor Stanley Milgram began to conduct experiments in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University, to answer a puzzling question:
“Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” 1
Or to put it another way: how far will people go in obeying instructions if it involves harming another person?
To answer this, Milgram recruited 40 participants aged between 20 and 50 years old, and instructed them to draw lots to help decide whether they were the “teacher” or “learner,” in the experiment. 2
The teacher was taken by a researcher into a small room and sat down in front of an electric ‘shock generator’ and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX).
They were instructed to read a long list of word pairs to the learner, who sat in a separate room next door.
If the learner guessed correctly they’d push a button and move onto the next list of word pairs. If not, the teacher would deliver an electric shock to the learner— 15 volt increments all the way up until 450 volts.
Unknown to the participants, the experiment was fake: the subject was always the “teacher” and the “learner” (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was never actually shocked by the electric switches.
Up until the shock level of 300 volts, the teacher would hear the learner pounding on the wall, crying out in pain, complaining about their heart condition and refusing to answer questions any longer.
After this shock level, the learner would no longer respond to electric shocks.
Whenever the participant refused to deliver the next round of shocks, the researcher would give a series of four prods in order: “please continue,” “the experiment requires you to continue,” “it is absolutely essential that you continue,” and “you have no other choice but to continue.”
The experiment ended whenever the teacher refused to participate any longer or 450 volts electric shock was delivered three times.
The results of the test was shocking.
65% (two-thirds) of the participants administered the highest level of electric shock― 450 volts. All participants continued until at least 300 volts.
There have been several follow up studies to verify the experiment, but the conclusion remains the same: humans tend to follow orders given by an authority figure, even if it costs another person’s life. 3
According to Milgram’s agency theory, mindless obedience to authority has been ingrained from birth through family, school and the workplace, in order to maintain social order within our hierarchical society. 4
The other five triggers are:
- Reciprocation: We tend to feel obliged to return favors offered to us.
- Commitment and Consistency: We strongly desire to appear consistent in our behavior, and tend to stand by previous commitments, even if they’re wrong.
- Social Proof: We tend to look to other people similar to ourselves to inform our decisions.
- Liking: We’re more likely to agree to offers from people who we like as a person.
- Scarcity: We tend to desire things that are unavailable or in limited supply.
By simply being aware of these triggers, you can significantly improve the odds of saying no to other people’s requests.
Here are five science-backed strategies to help you say no to people without offending them.
5 Effective Ways to Say No Without Feeling Guilty
1. Use the words “I don’t” instead of “I can’t.”
In four studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers examined the effect of using the words “I can’t” versus “I don’t” when resisting temptation. 5
During one of these studies, the researchers tracked how well 30 women stuck to their health goals over a period of 10 days.
The results: eight (of 10) participants in the “don’t” condition stuck to their health goals for the full 10 days, whilst only one participant (of 10) in the “can’t” condition did so.
According to the study author Vanessa Patrick, professor of marketing at the C. T. Bauer College of Business, “Saying ‘I can’t’ connotes deprivation, while saying ‘I don’t’ makes us feel empowered and better able to resist temptation.” 6
2. Avoid communicating with negative emotions
According to Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and expert on emotional intelligence, humans have a ‘negativity bias’ towards email and text messaging. 7
Goleman argues that even if the sender of an email feels positive about their message, ‘negativity bias’ will lead the receiver to interpret the message in a neutral tone.
Likewise, if the sender feels neutral about their message, the receiver tends to interpret it negatively. And if the sender feels negative, the receiver interprets it even more negatively than intended.
To counteract the negativity bias when saying no to someone via email or text messaging, ensure that you avoid sending messages when you’re angry or frustrated, and use positive words of encouragement with empathy in your response i.e. “thank you for…” or “good work on…”
By carefully using positive words in your messages, you’ll minimize the effects of the negativity bias and maintain goodwill with the recipient.
3. Watch your body language.
In 1971, Albert Mehrabian, an expert on body language and Professor Emeritus of Psychology in UCLA, published a book called Silent Messages, where he reveals the powerful effects of non-verbal communication in influencing the reactions of others. 8
According to Mehrabian, when we convey our feelings to others, three factors influence their liking towards us: words (7%), tone of voice (38%), and body language (55%).
If our words, tone of voice and body language aren’t congruent when we say no to others, they’re likely to get offended and react negatively to the message.
Incongruent body language tends to be either too aggressive or too weak, whilst congruent body language is confident and positive.
4. Pre-plan your ‘no.’
Hundreds of studies on “implementation-intentions” have shown that by simply writing down when and where you plan to implement a behaviour, you could double the odds of following through on your plans. 9
You may choose to pre-plan your ‘no’ in the following implementation intention format:
IF [specific person makes specific request at specific location and time], THEN [my specific response].
For example, “IF [Ben walks up to my desk at 11 a.m. tomorrow to make an urgent request], THEN [I will let him know I’ll get back to him by 1 p.m].”
By pre-committing your actions, you can make it automatically easier to gracefully say ‘no’ on a regular basis.
5. Avoid using the word ‘no.’
According to Dr. Robert Cialdini, “There is a natural human tendency to dislike a person who brings us unpleasant information, even when that person did not cause the bad news. The simple association with it is enough to stimulate our dislike.” 10
One of the best ways to avoid this negative reaction, is to avoid using the word ‘no’ and provide an alternative solution instead.
By providing others with alternatives to achieve their objectives, you can help them make progress without getting involved and feeling guilty.
Say No to Say Yes to Success
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
― Warren Buffett
There’s always an opportunity cost of our choices: when we say yes to one thing, we’re simultaneously saying no to another thing.
We often fail to realize that by saying yes to requests from others, we’re actually saying no to our priorities and goals.
By learning how to say no, you can effectively prioritize your time and say yes to the things that matter most to you.
- Elon Musk’s “Time Blocking” Method: How to Manage Time Effectively Even If Your Schedule Is Hectic.
- The Eisenhower matrix: How to Decide on What’s Important and Urgent (Without a To-Do List).
1. Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
2. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
3. Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76. As an example, this video footage of a reluctant participant during the experiment, shows the power of authority over our actions.
4. Formally, Milgram describes an “agentic state” during which people allow others to direct their actions and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders.
5. Patrick, V. M., & Hagtvedt, H. (2012). “I don’t” versus “I can’t”: When empowered refusal motivates goal-directed behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(2), 371-381.
6. I Don’t” Beats “I Can’t” for Self-Control” in SA Mind 23, 6, 14 (January 2013) doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0113-14a.
7. Daniel Goleman, “The Danger of Email,” LinkedIn Pulse, February 22, 2013,www.linkedin.com/pulse/20130222162001-117825785-the-danger-of-email.
8. Mehrabian, Albert (1971). Silent Messages (1st ed.).
9. Sarah Milne, Sheina Orbell, and Paschal Sheeran, “Combining Motivational and Volitional Interventions to Promote Exercise Participation: Protection Motivation Theory and Implementation Intentions,” British Journal of Health Psychology 7 (May 2002): 163–184.