How to Say No to People You Can’t Say No To

You’re overworked, overbooked, and overtired. You’re so busy there’s not another thing you can say ‘yes’ to. The problem is, the world hasn’t gotten the memo that you’re unavailable, and suddenly you’ve got someone you really can’t say ‘no’ to asking if you can take on one more thing. Sound familiar?  What do you do?

Sadly, there’s a whole slew of people in our lives that it’s nearly impossible to say ‘no’ to including:

  • Your boss
  • Coworkers
  • Clients
  • Friends 
  • Family

Luckily there’s a solution for each of them. 

Your Boss

With your boss, more than any other person on this list, it’s nearly impossible to say ‘no.’ This is the person responsible for your paycheck after all! The solution here relies on rewriting the script. How? By not saying ‘no’ at all. Instead, remind them how much work you have and ask about their priorities. An example would be, in a sincere tone of voice and body language,  “I am working on project X and meeting the deadline for project C, which would you like me to put on hold to take on this project?” It might be that they’ve forgotten what they’ve given you, or they might be wanting to rework your priorities entirely.


There’s a dynamic you can’t deny when it comes to your co-workers. You want to help them because down the road you may need them to help you. The problem is, you truly might not have the time right now for one more project. In this case, honesty is your best friend. Just let them know that you’d love to help, but you’re swamped. Most people will understand. After all, they’ve been there themselves. If they become pushy, remember to stand your ground, making it clear your ‘no’ means ‘no’.


The last thing you want to do is lose a client, but if you’re already overbooked, it might be that you really don’t have time to take on the project. The problem is we tend to say yes out of fear of losing their business and then wind up not being able to give the task our best efforts. In this case, you need diplomacy. Regretfully decline, but also let them know that you’d take the job if you could, but also realize you can’t give them the quality they deserve if you do. If you’re good at your job they’ll be back.

 We don’t have to let the people in our lives control our actions. Saying ‘no’ is not only possible – but necessary sometimes for your own piece of mind. You can do it! It’s all just a matter of saying ‘no.’

But Wait, What About Family and Friends

Along the way you are learning to say ‘no’.  You are becoming comfortable with turning down free samples; hanging up on telemarketers, even saying ‘no’ fairly easily to those unwanted school committees when someone from the PTA calls up that you’ve never even met. But it’s a whole different ballgame when it comes time to say no to someone you love. 

How do you say ‘no’ when the asker is a member of your family? Or a close personal friend?

Typically, the problem comes in because we’re afraid that by turning down a request from someone who’s an integral part of our lives, we think we’re going to damage the relationship somehow. But that doesn’t have to be the case, so long as you keep some simple rules in mind:

1. Start with appreciation.  By letting the other person know that you really are glad you were asked, you’re letting them know that your relationship with them is important. It truly is an honor to be asked, simply because it means that you’re important enough in their life that they thought of you for the job. That’s pretty amazing! Tell them that by first thanking them for asking. 

2. Be honest.  If you know up front that this isn’t for you, say so. It might be that you can’t afford to go on vacation with them. Or that you have other commitments that keep you from being part of their committee. The worst thing you can do is invent an excuse because it shows you don’t trust the other person enough to be upfront with them about where you are. Honesty is a mark of a healthy relationship. Besides, lies always have a way of being found out – especially if the person you’re lying to is a constant presence in your life.

3. Don’t get complicated. You don’t need to go into a long story as to why you can’t attend Aunt Sally’s wedding. Usually, people really don’t care (and if they do they’ll ask – though you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to). To explain excessively belabors the point, and actually can feel kind of insulting to the listener. 

Still having trouble?  Then give yourself some time. Giving yourself an afternoon, or maybe sleeping on the request will give you time to solidify your reasons for wanting to say ‘no’ so you can better express yourself and say ‘no’ with a clearer conscience. Time gives distance which gives clarity. 

‘No’ doesn’t have to be scary – or even overly complicated. Keep in mind that so long as you’re treating the person asking with respect, you’ll go a long way toward keeping the healthy relationship secure even when you have to let them down gently. A solid relationship that’s healthy has plenty of room for ‘no.’   

A term we haven’t used yet, but is very important here is “Boundaries” 

It might be that if you’re still having trouble saying ‘no’ it’s because you need to do some work on your own personal boundaries. Resolving this will take planned effort and dedication. If people cannot accept your ‘no’ it is their issue. The book “Boundaries” by Drs. Cloud and Townsend is an excellent resource. 

In some cases, talking to a counselor might be necessary to guide you on your journey to saying ‘no.’ It’s okay to ask for help. Do not be afraid to do so.

Learning to say ‘no’ can be the best form of self-care.

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