Learning how to say NO.


This week I learned a pretty valuable lesson, much to the detriment of a business relationship, but definitely a valuable skill that will hopefully help my business grow (and save my health, my sanity and hip pocket).

I learned how to say no.

Seems pretty simple right? “No.” is a full sentence after all.

My struggle with the word “No”

I am the type of person who has an issue saying no, especially when a desperate plea comes my way. My friend kindly pointed out to me that this is a trait of someone who has dysfunctional relationships, I am what you would call a ‘rescuer’. There is no where for the ‘rescuer’ to go, but straight to the ‘victim’.

My struggle with the ‘N’ word is the reason I took my phone number off my website. Frequently I would have half a dozen phone calls a day from desperate people asking me to help them with an urgent issue. For a website I never even built, for a person I’ve never heard of, random strangers who found me on the internet.

I felt like I couldn’t say no, so my solution was to take off my phone number completely. So I avoided having to say no.

Sitting pretty… on the fence

In other instances I’ll be asked to do something that I am on the fence about, whether it’s technically achievable according to my skill set or whether I can fit it in my existing schedule. In the past instead of saying no (in my eyes disappointing people), I’d say “I’ll take a look”. I didn’t commit to a NO, but in my head it’s not a yes either. A lot of the times, I will just suck it up and continue on because I was scared of saying ‘no’, resenting it the whole time. Let’s be honest, a ‘no’ would have been the simple and respectable solution.

It wasn’t until just recently that I realised how easy it was for someone to mistake my lack of clarity for a yes. A desperate plea from an ex client came my way and I did my “I’ll take a look” with a warning , it wasn’t in my skillset, the timing was too tight, I am pretty busy – all flags gearing for the “No”. By the time I had a chance to really look at what they wanted, they’d already confirmed the green light that it was all systems go and I felt it would be awkward to back out now. I hadn’t said yes, but I hadn’t said no either. A simple clarification at this instant probably would have saved us all, but instead, there I sat there on the fence.

After wasting hours on the project researching how to do what the ex client wanted (and stressing about all the things I should have been doing), I found myself looking at the project thinking… this wasn’t my problem… Why is this suddenly my problem? Why did I make this my problem? How did I make this my problem?

So I burnt that bridge and said, I am really sorry, but no, I can’t do this.

I want to say it felt good to finally say no, but truthfully I felt sick. I’d definitely let the client down in a massive way by delaying my ‘no’ and have extreme regret about not saying it sooner. I still don’t feel good about it but what gives me comfort is the fact that next time I am in this situation I’ll remember the sick feeling and it’s imprinted into my brain that saying NO feels so much better than saying nothing at all.

Not saying “No” pisses more people off than saying “No” itself.

Ironically, I know this first hand. 30% of all my proposals that I send out and I spend valuable time researching and putting together don’t even get a response back.  A simple “thanks but no thanks” is way better than a nothing at all, but that simple etiquette is a rare occurrence. I am not going to take it personally if they found it was too expensive, too cheap, not a right fit – it’s all relative in the scheme of things. But a simple no thanks clears the space for the people who really do want to say yes.

Saying no (or yes) will give everyone involved a clear boundary, there is no wishy washy in between.

A clear cut decision that can help everyone move forward.

So why are we so scared of saying no?

Digging a little deeper I’ve found a lot of my colleagues have a similar issue, and apparently it’s an epidemic amongst us female entrepreneurs. Denise Duffield Thomas has a really cool video about how men vs women sell and a lot of if can apply to us saying no.  So why are we so adverse to the word no?

Fear of conflict?

Fear of lost opportunities?

Don’t want to disappoint people?

Don’t want to appear rude?

You genuinely want to help?

Fear of not being liked?

Seems absolutely ludicrous right? This is a business, not a popularity contest.

When to say no?

I am a visual person so I created this graph to help the decision process, more of a logical approach than a magic 8 ball.



So who’s with me on with adding more No’s to our vocabulary.

“No.” is a full sentence.

Some bonus resources if you’re struggling with how to say No 50 ways to say NO.


On a side note on the subject of saying NO (but totally unrelated topic), when it really needs to be a clear yes  this video about tea/consent is worth a watch. 


8 thoughts on “Learning how to say NO.

  1. Hey Nikki,
    love the flow diagram! it’s taken me a while but I’m fairly good at saying no these days. I do think that is a practised this for those who struggle with it, but completely agree that if you can’t do it properly then the person asking would probably rather you say no.

    I also think when you say no then people respect you for being honest about your time or interest. If it’s something that I would like to do but I don’t have time then I usually say, so that if the opportunity comes up again then they can ask and see if I have capacity.
    Great share
    Suz 🙂

    1. Hey Suzanne,
      The respect thing is a big one, often people try on self imposed tight deadlines and put unwarranted pressure, then when you say no the deadlines magically disappear. Best to be upfront and honest about it.

  2. I was looking for a WordPress code snippet and ended up on your blog (go me the procrastinator!). Great to see some super geek girl power here in Oz 🙂

    Anyway, just wanted to say I love your post (and what I’ve seen of your work). Just one thing I’d probably disagree with is the part of your chart where it says: “Do I have the skills to do it?” – To be honest, the best, most interesting (and most challenging!) projects I’ve been involved with were those in which I knew I didn’t necessarily have all the skills/knowledge required at the beginning. That has always been the best learning tool for me and best way to improve my skills (quickest way to break world records on coffee consumption as well).

    Obviously you need to know yourself well and have a good idea about what sort of new challenges you can commit to.

    Other than that, I’m with you. Just becoming more confident about saying “No” sometimes 🙂

    1. That’s so true Carlos! I had in my mind that my decision process was on a time limit, so I need to pop a new loop in there at that point – “do I have time to learn this new skill”. I love learning new stuff, but when it’s on a deadline it becomes hard to really immerse yourself and not cut corners.

  3. I love this post Nicki! I find it really hard to say “no” as well. And if I do I always feel the need to justify why I’m saying “no”. Awesome info-graphic too, It’s going to be super useful – so thank you!

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