How to Say No (Without Feeling Guilty)

It’s one of the smallest, shortest words in the English language, but one of the hardest to say. This week, Savvy Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, offers seven ways to say no (and maybe not even feel guilty!).

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #103

OK, now on to seven ways to say no!

Method #1: Offer an alternative. This is the easiest way to say no.  Decline the request, but offer a consolation prize. “My schedule just doesn’t allow me to proofread your dissertation before your deadline, but here’s a link to a great article on the five biggest dissertation errors to watch out for.” Just make sure you’re not offering an alternative solely out of guilt—your goal is to actually be helpful to the requestor, not just to make yourself feel less guilty.

Method #2: Connect with empathy as well as saying no. Demonstrating that you’ve truly heard and understood the person’s request can make them feel good, even if you ultimately can’t take on the task. Affirm that they’re working hard, or that they’re dealing with a challenging task. For instance, “You’re working so hard to make your sister’s wedding a success; I wish I could take organizing the shower off your hands, but I just can’t right now.”

Method #3: Blame something objective. Make your unavailability the fault of your schedule, your workload, other duties, or another external, objective circumstance that’s out of your control. And avoid the awkwardness of hearing “You’re busy this week?  Then how about next week?” by adding, “I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

Method #4: Blame something subjective. Along the same lines as blaming an external circumstance, you can blame something internal and individual to you.  For instance, blame your taste, your skills, your style.  For example, “I’m going to have to say no to emcee-ing the recital; being onstage just isn’t my style.”  

Method #5: Turn it into a compliment. Say no to the request, but turn it into a compliment for the requestor. “Thanks so much for thinking of me! That’s so nice of you.” Or, “I appreciate the opportunity—it was so lovely of you to ask me first.” Personally, I always try to do this when fundraisers stop me on the street—I won’t always donate, but I always tell them they’re doing important work and wish them the best of luck.  

Method #6: Stick to your guns. Now we’re getting more advanced. Some folks will push you and ask more than once, or will pester you to try to wear you down. (Some of these people may have an age in the single digits; two of them live in my house).  

In this scenario, it’s OK to use the classic Broken Record Technique—just give the same answer again and again when they ask again and again. You don’t have to be soulless about it—you can empathize with them and give them a hug, but don’t let your answer morph from “no” to “maybe” to “well, ok just one” to “fine go ahead.” Just stick to your original “no.”

Method #7: Say no without apologizing. This is graduation from ‘no’ school. Just like guilt, apologizing is for when you’ve done something wrong. It may seem like a fine line between not apologizing and being rude, but done well, “no” can be gracious and polite. Your requestor won’t even miss the “I’m so sorry.” For instance, “What a lovely idea to make handmade decorations for the reunion! I have to admit I’m just not the woman for that job. But I can make a mean sangria.”  Tah-dah! No apologies needed.  

A final tip:  Make your “no” swift and clear. Don’t delay your answer, say you’ll think about it, say maybe, or say yes and then back out. It may feel wrong to say “no,” but in the long run a clear, timely answer is more polite and in your requestor’s best interest.

For those of us who like to think we can do it all, starting to say “no” may come with a cost. We may not be the super mom, jack-of-all-trades, or I-can-always-count-on-you friend we’ve come to see ourselves as. But when we stop trying to do it all, oddly, we gain time, energy, and, best of all, respect.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.