Saying “No” Without Guilt

Tree that says "just say no." When our inner voice is warning us to say “no.”
Image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

Of all the topics I hear people discuss, one stands out as seemingly universal: too much to do, not enough time. Admittedly, we have little influence over our “mandatory” workload (e.g. assignments, work tasks, childcare obligations, etc.) However, we frequently become own worst enemy by taking on voluntary positions and projects even when our inner voice is warning us to say “no.” Why is this?

  1. We agree to help because we believe ourselves to be competent for the job, and think if we don’t help, no one else will.
  2. We sign ourselves up without carefully considering the extent of the time and work involved.
  3. We say “yes” because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and don’t know how to gracefully decline.

These explanations reflect the complex interplay of confidence, guilt, time management skill, and emotional connection that come to bear when we are approached with a request. Nonetheless, embracing a couple of realities can be helpful in putting requests into perspective:

  • People are asking you for help because you are perceived to be capable, likely to say yes, or both.
  • The need for volunteers often outstrips the supply.
  • The presence of a need does not equate to your being the best person to fill it.
  • People who ask you to help are unaware of everything you have on your plate.
  • Each person must serve as his/her own gatekeeper.
  • Stepping into a role for the right reasons can be an incredibly positive experience.

Obviously, the decision to assume optional responsibilities should be made carefully. Always resist the urge to give an answer on the spot. Ask how long you have to consider your response. If you are pressured to answer without sufficient time, move to declining.

Once you decide not to move forward, the challenge is how to communicate your decision in a positive and respectful manner. Here is what I have found to work well:

  1. Thank the person asking for thinking of you. It is a compliment to be asked, even if you don’t want the job.
  2. Communicate that you have carefully considered the request.
  3. Affirm the importance of the project/role, and communicate your support for filling this position with the best person.
  4. Explain that you are respectfully declining the request.
  5. Provide an explanation such as…
  • I don’t believe I am the right person for this job. My skills and interests are not a good fit.
  • I am currently too committed elsewhere to be able to serve with excellence.
  • I have a conflict of interest because I serve a similar function for a competitive organization.

Periodically, you will run into someone who “won’t take no for an answer.” If you’ve tried everything else, you can always try something like, “Are you saying you want me to accept, even though I’m not interested and will do a lousy job?” This usually results in retreat. If it doesn’t, just laugh and walk away!

Do you have trouble saying “no?” Have you ever agreed to help when you knew you shouldn’t?

24 thoughts on “Saying “No” Without Guilt”

    1. I think many of us feel guilty… because we are nice and want to help others! But when we step back far enough, we can see that always saying “yes” just doesn’t work. That said, always easier to tell a friend she should just decline that it is for me to do so. I think it is a bit of a muscle, though, and it does get easier the more we do it!

    1. We’ve all got to erect healthy boundaries! You make an excellent point about how we tend to say yes when we are in the beginning stages of a new experience, because we don’t know when it is and isn’t wise to say no. As we become more comfortable in a job, role, or situation, we become more skilled at assessing the value of agreeing to a commitment!

  1. I have a difficult time saying no (don’t tell my kids’ schools’ PTA!!). I’ll practice your tips next time I really do need or want to say no. Thanks for having my back.

    1. Definitely a challenge for all of us! Sometimes having a script in the back of our minds for a certain situation makes it easier to say or do what we truly desire, without letting our emotions undermine us!

  2. I like being a “yes” person, but I also like being a “no” person if that makes sense. It’s just about tailoring things to my timing, abilities, mental health levels! Usually I do say “yes” but recently I was asked to donate a photo shoot to a preschool raffle. I said “yes”. Then I was asked to donate one to another school – that neither of my kids have or will attend. That’s when I realized it was too much. I procrastinated but finally was very honest. And it was so well received! That made me happy.
    Tamara recently posted…Creating My Favorite Barbecue Spread.My Profile

    1. Love when that kind of affirmation takes place – when you take a risk to do something uncomfortable (but right…), and the world responds positively. I think I was asked to donate to 3 raffles in April alone!

  3. Especially at this time of year, it’s important to remember you can say no. I am seeing a trend of more respect for our time and projects we agree to be a part of. It’s always good to have the words to express gratitude, positivity and respect.

    I appreciate the complexity of saying no for many of us. You have captured why it’s difficult. Thank you for expressing this for us.

    1. It really is difficult! I find that as people get busier, they actually respect someone who respectfully and positively declines a request. Knowing your own limits is a healthy asset, and definitely worth the effort to cultivate!

  4. Wow, Seana! This is such an important topic. And in all honesty, I have some mixed feelings about it. As someone that runs an organization and knows the importance of having people that will say “yes” to volunteering, you make a compelling argument for NOT saying “yes.” And frankly, your reasons to consider the “no” are good. We don’t want people volunteering that aren’t a good fit for the skills/tasks needed. That will only frustrate everyone. However, we do want people that are willing to extend themselves. Everyone is busy. Everyone has full plates.

    A few weeks ago, I got news that the South African organizing association (POAA) is no longer running as of April 1st because they didn’t have enough leaders and volunteers to step up. That’s a very sad situation. And it could happen for any of our associations…national or local IF people aren’t willing to say “yes.”

    However, I’ve been many of the positions. The position to recruit/ask a volunteer to step up, the position to be asked to step up and say “yes,” and the position to step up and say, “no.”

    One other thought is that instead of a flat out “no,” sometimes there are options for volunteering that can work within the parameters of the volunteer…a taskateer (micro-volunteer) or short-term task/job vs. one that’s longer term. That way the volunteer can still be involved, but in a way that makes sense for them.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…How to Find Some Calm For Your Cluttered MindMy Profile

    1. I like the micro-volunteer idea, and if you need to fill positions, how to respond to a no is a whole other post:) Of course, I would never suggest that people shouldn’t volunteer and give back! My experience is that those who regularly volunteer often get asked to do more, largely because they have demonstrated a willingness to be involved.

      That said, we all need to know our own limits. I have seen situations where people overcommit, largely because they don’t want to upset anyone, and they end up getting burnt out. This can lead to hard feelings and bitterness, which is very unhealthy for the organization as a whole.

      For those of us who have the job of recruiting volunteers, we can be open to options, and respectful if people politely decline. Sometimes getting a “no” from someone leads me to ask someone else who didn’t immediately pop to mind, and this can be very exciting!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Linda!

  5. Over the years, volunteering for my kids’ school and home and school activities, I learned how to say no politely. I agree with your suggestions wholeheartedly. It’s always a good reminder because we tend to get wrapped up with the day to day and forget to listen to ourselves. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. I see you and I are on exactly the same page this week! (I tried to comment on your post, but couldn’t find a place to do so….) Saying “no” is an important life skill. That is not to say that we should never say “yes,” as Linda Samuels pointed out in her comment. Yet for those times when we know we can’t take on anything else, it is helpful to have a script in our minds, either mine or yours!

  6. I love that you shared some examples on what to say with your “no”. So many times I think we can’t verbalize our “no” so we end up saying “yes”! I think the examples you provided will be a great help to many! Great post!
    Liana George recently posted…3 Creative To – Do ListsMy Profile

    1. I always feel comforted when I realize that something I’ve been thinking or feeling turns out to be common, especially in areas where I feel a little less than competent. We all have times when we are thrilled to say “yes” and times when “no” is the better answer.

  7. This is a very interesting discussion! One of the challenges I’ve faced as a volunteer is that once an organization has you on their list, they will ask you to do much more than you signed up for. I volunteered for Big Sisters because I wanted to support a young girl, not to sell chocolate bars, staff a kiosk in the Mall, or work at a smoke-filled bingo parlor (yet I did all of these things, and more, until I was finally comfortable saying “no.”). And I volunteered to take photos at a local event to exercise my photography skills, not to dish out food. I understand that this happens because it’s hard to get volunteers, but it’s frustrating.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Social Media and Time ManagementMy Profile

    1. Great comment, Janet. I think it ultimately becomes a balance between doing your fair share, and wanting to blend your gifts with a need. Toss all that in with the demands on your time, and it can get pretty complicated. Ultimately, we want to serve cheerfully, and for the right reasons!

    1. Exactly! I’m not saying don’t volunteer… everyone has gifts and talents to share. Simply don’t say “yes” to everything and then end up feeling wiped out. Sometimes having a script can help you say what is in your heart, even if it feels awkward.

  8. I still have issues with this. I have to stop and breathe for a second before I answer. I try to say I’ll see, it depends on what it is. Other times I want to help people and the need to please is too strong. I am trying though….

    1. Actually, pausing to take a breath is a great idea. Or telling someone you will think about it and get back to them. This gives us time to actually think about whether or not we really want to say yes. We all struggle with this one!

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