How to effectively say 'no' without guilt and bad consequences - CavaCom Copywriters' Hoe To Series

How To Communicate – 3 Guilt-Free Steps to Saying ‘No’

If you find it hard to say ‘no’, try this

Written by Daniela Cavalletti

6 min read

No matter how battle-hardened we may be in business (or life) – deep down we all want to be valued, needed and loved. We want to belong and feel connected. So rejecting someone by saying ’no’ to their request for our attention, expertise or time seems counterproductive. Likely, it will leave us feeling guilty, harsh and rude.

Saying ‘no’ often feels outright wrong.

But is it?

What are the consequences of us so automatically saying ‘yes’ to other people’s requests? We all lead lives that seem to become more busy every day. What if­ – by changing just a few things in our communication – we could gently claw back some free-time; some calm and sanity?

Saying ‘No’ Is Actually a Way of Saying ‘Yes’ (to Yourself)

Have a close, unflinching look at the things you did say ‘yes’ to last week, or even last month. How many of them were mostly time-suckers that may (or may not) have helped others – but left you overworked, stressed-out and overwhelmed?

How many of the things you said ‘yes’ to did you regret having committed to? I bet, there were quite a few.

If you had said ‘no’ to these things (or at least a handful of them; let’s take baby steps) you would automatically have instead said a big, joyful ‘yes!’ to looking after your own valuable time, your mental health, and your worth.

I know what I’m talking about: I used to say ‘yes, certainly!’ to every invitation to meet up over a coffee, because I thought it to be good manners; proper business and networking etiquette.

But these days? I now ask ‘why?’ more often before committing – and say ‘no’ when needed. As a result, I’m generally much nicer to have around. Because I enjoy the meetings I booked, I have more time, am more productive, and my stress-levels have plunged.

We rarely stop and take into account the demands on our limited resources when we so readily acquiesce to others’ requests.

So how can you say ‘no’ nicely, effectively … and still feel good about yourself?

#1 – Know Whether You Should Say ‘No’ To Something

The first step is to give yourself a bit of a breather before answering a request. I often just reacted on the spot (“they like me, yay; how wonderful!”) without evaluating what I was actually being asked to commit to, and why I wanted to say ‘yes’.

Check in with yourself whether the request is fair and saying ‘yes’ is good for you.

A Definite No

If any of the following apply, it’s probably time to say “thanks, but no thanks”:

  • You say ‘yes’ only because it’s easier than saying ‘no’
  • You’re being put under undue pressure to commit right there and then
  • You’re being manipulated using ‘fear of missing out’ or another worry
  • You’re only saying ‘yes’ to please someone else (or your own ego)
  • You’ve had a bad experience with this person forever taking, without ever giving
  • They are asking for a huge chunk of your expertise for free when they know that’s what your business is built on


A Mini Yes

If you want to soften the blow of saying ‘no’ or are able to give some of your time, instead of a meeting, offer to have a 10 minute phone call instead. But that still needs some scheduling, and can quickly take up time you don’t have or want to give.

Especially with non-project requests from people I don’t yet know, I often offer to answer their questions via email rather than meet for a coffee or chat on the phone in the first instance. That way I separate the people with some serious interest and questions from the rest – and I’m back in control about when I help them. Try it: you can answer their email during ‘dead time’ waiting for a client to arrive or during your commute, for instance.

When you receive email requests for your expertise that clearly require far more than a quick tip, you can try and say ‘yes’ with a caveat: a polite message with an attached fee proposal for the time and knowledge they want you to share with them. Then the choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is theirs, based on clear expectations.

The “Hell, Yes!” Filter

Still not sure whether to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to something? Try this easy way to really gauge how positive you feel about the invitation to that networking event, partnership programme, project or date:

  1. Pause to check your immediate gut reaction when you hear the invitation or offer
  2. If you feel excited and enthusiastic – ready to fist-pump the air and shout “Hell, yes!” –, go for it.
  3. Everything else, say no to.


I’ve found that really useful. All the other half-no-half-yes answers I might give to not commit to something I’m less than enthused about (“Hmmm, let me check my diary – can I come back to you?”, “Damn, sorry, I think I might be out of town that week.”) are automatically eliminated, and the answer is ‘no’.

By focusing on the positive – the level of excitement I feel about doing something –, I avoid guilt or discomfort to take over and influence me into saying ‘yes’ just to avoid those negative feelings.

Saying ‘No’ – Remember

There are, of course, good causes and kind things we can, should and want to do for others. And some things simply need to be done (that trip to the dentist, your tax return, your staff’s  performance review). But it’s all about balance: stay firm when it comes to valuing your own time and expertise.

#2 – Learn That Saying ‘No’ Isn’t A Bad Thing

Knowing that we should say ‘no’ doesn’t make actually saying it easier, though. It takes a mind-shift. Do you feel selfish by saying ‘no’ – but generous, valued and magnanimous when saying ‘yes’?

Here’s the thing: you’re not:

  • If you are getting stressed, cranky and overwhelmed due to committing too much to those demanding of your time without benefit to you, you’ll end up feeling used and become trapped in a cycle of low productivity.
  • Saying ‘yes’ all the time may be far more harmful and selfish than saying ‘no thanks’ a bit more often. You won’t be the nicest person to be around (just ask my long-suffering husband after I’ve overextended myself). When you are out of whack, not only you, but your family, staff, friends and business will suffer.
  • People who are quick to say ‘yes’ without reserve are often seen as just a bit too eager to please, and thus a weak easy-mark for further exploitation. Not an ideal position to be in in business or life.


So remember: saying ‘no’ to undesirable, demanding additional items on your agenda is saying a wholehearted ‘yes’ to your own health, relationships and value.

#3 – How to Deliver a Good ‘No’ That Leaves Everyone’s Ego Intact

Right, … now we’re ready to utter that dreaded two-letter-word. Having been used to saying ‘yes, of course, I’ll do it!’ for so long, your first instinct may be to apologise for turning someone down. But don’t.

The trick with delivering a graceful ‘no’ – one that leaves both you and the other party feeling good about it – is to state it kindly, clearly and firmly.

There is no need to apologise or justify that you cannot offer the time someone else demanded for their own benefit. Sure, be courteous and say sorry you cannot help, but don’t overdo it and leave yourself wavering or sounding unsure. Stay strong in your decision.

It can be a nice touch and kind to offer an alternative to a meeting or lengthy use of your time, to give a mini yes with the ‘no’: a paid consultation; an introduction to another person who might be better positioned to help and also benefit; a few words of advice from you that they can take further themselves; a helpful website, etc.

Whatever your response, remember to keep it simple, truthful and caring by:

  1. Acknowledging their interest
  2. Respectfully declining the proposal or request
  3. Offering an alternative way to help, if appropriate


How to Say ‘No’ – Practice Makes Perfect

There will be a few lapses into saying a reflexive ‘yes’ before you get the hang of saying ‘no’ effectively – and in a way that will leave you feeling not just ok but good.

Be patient. Change takes time and practice. It may take a few weeks before you’ll confidently flex your underworked ‘no’ muscle. But soon you’ll be able to breathe easy – and enjoy the extra time, calm and productiveness you just created for yourself.

Hang in there, the reward of saying ‘no’ is sweet … Hell yes!

  • Michael Ruiz
    Posted at 09:34h, 11 July

    Good article Daniela and very apt for me – I now know to say ‘no’ gracefully and not feel guilty or that I might be missing out on something awesome. By saying yes all the time you eventually go into a spiral that only takes you down the rabbit hole and in time brings stress, anxiety and other mental and physical health issues.

    Saying NO is Li seating!

    • Daniela Cavalletti
      Posted at 08:53h, 18 July

      Thanks for being so kind and candid, Michael. Saying ‘yes’ to too many invites and some, to me, disadvantageous requests has left me chasing my tail too often in the past. I still have to remind myself daily of the good practice of pausing, applying the “hell yes!” filter and not worrying about missing out. It will remain a work in progress for me – but it’s good to experience the journey to a much less stressful way of being.

  • Roland Hanekroot
    Posted at 10:23h, 11 July

    Great lessons for us all… easier said than done a muscle worth practicing, honing and flexing

    • Daniela Cavalletti
      Posted at 08:48h, 18 July

      Indeed. It’s all about taking one step, one ‘no’ at a time. Acknowledging both our successes and failures in saying ‘no’ when it’s needed, reflecting and keeping at it.

  • Marcus
    Posted at 11:11h, 11 July

    That’s great advice. It’s really easy when you are busy person to find that people love to ask you to do things. Why? Because busy people get things done. Which raises the question, is the person asking you to do something trying to delegate or sub-contract something they could easily do themselves?

    • Daniela Cavalletti
      Posted at 08:46h, 18 July

      Hear hear, Marcus! I’m sure many of us on this blog have found ourselves in that situation. And then wonder why we’re so damn busy all the time, right? Good time to check in with the old ego and /or being so busy we’re on auto-pilot – why exactly are we accepting the offers and requests we get? I keep falling into this trap and have to keep reminding myself to say no.

  • Wendy John
    Posted at 14:31h, 11 July

    Definitely one to practise. I like the ‘mini-no’ option as an alternative. Thx Daniela!

    • Daniela Cavalletti
      Posted at 08:42h, 18 July

      Lovely to hear from you, Wendy, and that the mini-no option works for you. We are all different so there’s no one ‘right’ approach, I believe.

  • Jim Bahr
    Posted at 08:58h, 12 July

    Difficult lesson that we all need to learn. Point 4 – saying ‘no’ can be a favour to both parties – when we say ‘yes’ out of guilt, and so are inattentive or give less than our best, how often does the Requester walk away thinking ‘that was a waste of time’ ?

    • Daniela Cavalletti
      Posted at 08:41h, 18 July

      You make a very good 4th point, Jim, thank you. In that case it’s a lose/lose situation, rather than a win/win.