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How to Say No Without Ruining Relationships

How to Say No Without Ruining Relationships

Life is full of opportunities and choices. And as I talk about in my book, Say Goodbye to Survival Mode, if you want to have margin and breathing room in your life and not feel constantly exhausted and overwhelmed, you’ve got to learn to say no.

This doesn’t mean that you say no to everything and everyone all the time, but that you carefully evaluate each opportunity in light of your long-term priorities and goals and your current responsibilities — and say “no” when something is not a good fit.

That all sounds great to most people, but the feedback I’ve been hearing a lot is, “I want to pare down my responsibilities and commitments. I want to stop rushing through life and feeling pulled in so many different directions. But how do I start saying no without ruining relationships?”

How to Say No Without Ruining Relationships

Here are some suggestions:

1. Be Gracious

When saying no, always be very gracious in how you say it. If you come across as uncaring and rude, you’re bound to hurt the other person. Express gratitude that they would ask you and then explain that this isn’t going to work because of X but that you are so honored they would ask.

Example: Just this past week, some friends asked if we could get together. While I would love to get together with them, as I looked at the calendar, I realized that the week was already quite full and that adding one more thing would probably be too much.

So I expressed how much I appreciated the invite and that I’d love to get together, but that this week was already full and adding another commitment to the week would probably be cause for stress. I then followed up with another possible date for us to get together in a few weeks.

2. Be Honest

I’ve found that it’s helpful to give a concise explanation when saying no to someone or something. This lets the person know that it’s not about them; it’s just that the opportunity is not a good fit for your current life season.

Don’t over-explain, but a simple two or three sentence reason will help the person who asks to know where you’re coming from and why you’re saying no at this time.

Example: An online acquaintance asked me to endorse her soon-to-be-released book. As I have time, I am honored to occasionally endorse books that are coming out. Since I try to always read through books before giving an endorsement, this takes quite a bit of time on my part. As a result, I’ve learned to check my upcoming schedule before committing to read and endorse a book.

In this case, the deadline was too soon for me to be able to get the endorsement in with other responsibilities I’d already committed to. So I wrote back and told this person that while I’d love to endorse her book, the time frame didn’t work out for me right now.

How to Say No Without Runing Relationships

3. Offer An Alternative

If you can’t say yes right now, consider if you can say yes in the future or offer an alternative. This is especially important for close friends and family members. You can’t say yes to them all the time, but you can look for ways to offer an alternative.

Example: In point number one above, I shared how I had told friends we couldn’t get together this week, but had proposed another week that would work. This is a great way to be able to say no without completely saying no — thus, finding a compromise that is a good fit for everyone!

Be Sure to Tie Up Loose Ends

If you are thinking of stepping down from a commitment, be sure to clearly communicate why you’re going the direction you are to those involved and then tie up the loose ends on your responsibilities and projects before pulling out completely. This way, you’re fulfilling your commitments and not leaving people high and dry. It might require more work in the short run, but it will probably mean that you don’t frustrate others and burn bridges in the process.

How to Say No Without Ruining Relationships

Important Note

If you follow all of these steps and the end result is that someone is angry and upset because you had to graciously bow out, it’s probably not a healthy relationship to begin with. In fact, I’d wager to say that you might be being used in the situation — and the person cares more about you as an asset than you as a person.

If they are angry that you are no longer going to be helping or participating instead of understanding that it’s not a good fit for you right now, it’s probably time that you step back or set boundaries in this relationship. You can’t make everyone happy all the time, but I encourage you to surround yourself with people care more about you than they care about what they can get from you.

What advice and tips do you have for saying no without ruining relationships?

 

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38 Comments

  • I really appreciate in #2 you add that you suggested a different date to get together in the future with your friends instead of just telling them that you were busy. It shows that you still value the time you spend with those friends and really DO want to get together.

    • Yes! I try to do this every chance I get — especially when it comes to close friends and family. Relationships are one of the few things that will matter at the end of our lives.

  • I’ve been trying to “say no” and cut things out of my life. My husband has wanted me to end the two commitments that cause the most stress for me (that he sees). I was resistant for a while, but decided to follow his lead on this. One commitment will end very soon, and the other will end in April. I already feel like an amazing weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and I haven’t actually finished them yet. Just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel feels great! Now to make sure I don’t just end up filling the space with other commitments. . .

  • Pat Cobb says:

    I especially appreciate the section entitled “Be sure to tie up loose ends”. I was director of a homeschool co-op for seven years and without fail someone got overwhelmed and quit without notice every semester. I understand co-ops are not for everyone, but we laid out the responsibilities on the table and I asked every new member if they felt comfortable with the work load before they signed up. When someone quits in the middle of a commitment, they put everyone they committed to in a bind not to mention the example they are setting for their children. With that in mind, take time to think and pray before you make a time-consuming commitment. Don’t make decisions with your emotions or because you “should” do something.

    • Cathy says:

      Yes! While it’s important to learn to say “no” when needed, saying “no” to new things is not the same as backing out of commitments which then can overload others with work; others who are often also tired and weary but willing to work together to fulfill a commitment since they gave their word. I think it’s important to differentiate between these two, definitely.

      I really enjoyed the book and then donated it to our local library so that others can hopefully learn from it as well.

  • Juliet says:

    I always want to say ‘yes’ to everything. Visiting with friends, volunteering for school occasions and projects, organizing the scout meetings, baking and such are the things I enjoy doing – it means more time with my kids too. My problem is I put off the things I HAVE to do (laundry, dishes, cleaning, etc.) in order to meet my other commitments. My chores are what overwhelm me. My many commitments are things that give me pleasure and I don’t want to give them up. I only work part time so I can do more with my kids but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day! I made a resolution this year to smooth things out a bit and it seems to be working so far, but if anyone has any tips I’d love to hear them. Thank you!

    • Ann says:

      Get your kids to help!! We have a “chore chart” that rotates through the kids. Every night, one kid is in charge of unloading the dishwasher and setting the table, one is “sous chef” (helping in an age appropriate fashion) and floor sweeper, and one kid has table cleanup + one house duty (varies by day of the week; taking out the trash or recycling, cleaning the kids’ bathroom, vacuuming, gathering and sorting the dirty laundry, etc.) There is still plenty for my husband and I to do, but it’s taken some of the pressure off. And somehow it’s easier for me to find time to do chores if they’re doing them too!

    • Julie says:

      Juliet,
      I am in a similar situation. I work part time and homeschool my kids (we have 5). I love the volunteering at church that I do, the schooling, the activities, my job, working out- all things that other people tell me are the things I should be saying “no” to. I would rather say “no” to the meal making and the housework. I am trying to be organized and get the kids and husband to help, but I am seriously contemplating hiring a maid. Why give up the things that I love to do (and the things that I am good at) in order to spend so much time doing things that I don’t enjoy- life seems too short to spend it all on domestic chores 🙂

  • Tonya says:

    It’s also o.k. not to give an explanation for your no. Your no is enough of a reason in itself, and you “can” weaken it by giving explanations.

    • Jessica says:

      I totally, wholeheartedly agree with this. We’re all grown-ups here and we don’t need to defend ourselves to anyone.

    • Roxanne says:

      I completely agree.

      If someone respects you they will not need a reason.

      I will not justify my priorities to anyone. As another poster said, we are adults. We do not need to explain our choices to other people.

      • C says:

        If I may, as an adult you do owe another adult an explanation as to why you are not interested in being around them. If you have a close relationship it is easy to be gracious and accommodating. Remember, you may not be aware of what someone else is going through and a simple “no” with no additional kindness or information can be absolutely brutal.

        You’re not defending yourself, you’re honoring the friendship by explaining how important all your commitments are. Who knows – maybe your friend can help you with some of your problems!

        This is very important to me: a friend recently stopped talking to me. I have no idea why, and my efforts to reach out have been ignored. If she was overwhelmed in her life, I would have been thrilled to help her or simply back off. But with no explanation from her, I’ve been absolutely crushed.

        I hope I’ve understood your position correctly and given a good response.

    • I totally agree Tonya!

      I was recently asked to take on a responsibility at a church event. After praying about it, I knew it wasn’t something I would enjoy. When I told the person no, I also thanked them for thinking of me. Before I would have rambled on and on about why I wasn’t going to do it.

  • Jenn says:

    We are in a crazy season as a family with this being my husband’s busy time at work and my daughter playing competitive volleyball. And I am terrible at saying no. I’m always so worried about hurting someone’s feelings!

  • Jessica Becker says:

    I agree with the above comment. Sometimes giving reasons can actually weaken your stance. This happens to me all the time. I state my reasons, perhaps in too much detail, only to find the other party taking each of my reasons and turning them back on me. I think keeping the “reason” part short & simple is key: “I cannot do this at this time because it is too much for my current season of life. Thanks for being understanding.” It’s hard to argue that.

  • Judy says:

    I am trying to learn to say No ‘without’ explanation.
    I get mad when someone says, ‘well can’t you do this, or can’t you do that’.?

    I’ve been saying, I’m sorry, my week is full, or I have other plans. If they ask about my plans, it really makes me mad! If I plan to sit on the couch and vegetate, it’s none of their business.
    I think that’s very rude!

  • Such a great topic. I think it all boils down to the Golden Rule (not to guilt yourself into saying “yes,” but to say “no” in a gracious way).

    Great post.

  • Lana says:

    One thing to be careful of is to not always say no because eventually people will stop asking. At that point you may find yourself without friends. We have a family in our circle of friends who always said no and now we have all just written them off. We just got tired of the same excuses every time we asked. Another woman in this circle asked me recently if I had talked to the ‘always no’ woman and I said there was no point and she agreed. We were not being ugly but we know what the answer is if we ask. If we run into that family out in public they will always say that we need to get together but we all know they do not mean it.

    Also, now that my children are grown, I can tell you that life with your kids is VERY short. In retrospect, I would have chosen to do more things that were fun and social for them if I had known how unimportant my schedule and always being on top of the cleaning and laundry was. You cannot go back and do it over, Moms.

    • MiriamH says:

      I agree with this, do occasionally suggest an alternative if you value the relationship at all. We have friends whom we no longer ask because the answer was always no. Now I am told that I am excluding them.

  • The most important part that I’ve found is doing it to myself first.

    In other words, I have to say no to myself before I can say no to others. When I find myself chasing shiny objects that I think of, I am more likely to say yes to others when I should say no.

  • Need A Nap2 says:

    On the flip side (and I don’t know if you’ll be touching on this Crystal), don’t ask certain people to do things because you know they’ll always says yes. Specifically, my husband was in a ministry position and the pastor would always ask one lady to do things b/c he knew she’d say yes. My husband would go out of his way to ask others b/c he knew that one lady was always overwhelmed. Be gracious about/when asking people and if possible help them not to have say yes or no by asking someone else. 🙂

  • Thank you for writing this. I have been working on stepping back from some commitments in my life, but being involved in ministry I often find it difficult to say “no” to many kind and well-meaning people. With 3 children ages 4, 3, and 1, and being a one-vehicle family, I just can’t commit to many things right now. I keep reminding myself that this is just a phase of my life. When I was young and single I could commit to dozens of activities, and someday when my children are older I will be able to commit to dozens of activities again. For now, I am just trying to focus on the basics.

  • Jessica Y says:

    Saying no to one thing means saying YES to another thing.

  • Jessica says:

    We’re going through this with my in-laws. I’ve had a lot of health problems including several major surgeries in the past six months, and another round of testing next week. During the same time, my son has had some serious health issues, we were in contract on a house (it fell through), and so forth. The family members always put it on us to do the traveling, and they want us there for this, that and the other. This past weekend they invited us to a birthday party and we already had commitments for the full day, things we had already planned weeks before we heard about the party. Well lo and behold, we got a “nastygram” in the mail, disguised as a Valentine’s Day card, berating us, criticizing us, and the writer was attempting to speak on behalf of others (who are adults and can speak for themselves), and on and on *and on*, including stuff from months ago! The author of the letter was an in-law who likes to play martyr and my husband and I are just tired of it. It’s his family and his decision on how to respond. He’s decided to ignore the notes and letters if they don’t have the courage to speak to him face to face. These same relatives were nowhere to be found while I was in the hospital or recovering or at the urgent care with my son.

    • Belinda says:

      Amen to this! I know how this feels! The only difference was it being “friends” who treated me this way. It hurts when you think people care and you find out they don’t !

    • B. says:

      I know how you feel Jessica, we’ve gone through the same things with my in-laws. I had health problems and we went through a lot of health issues with my son when he was first born, but there was no empathy, only demands. I used to be a big people pleaser, but I’m learning that I only need please the Lord first and do what is best for my family. It can be so hurtful, but I try to gauge by my family’s health. If we are thriving and my husband is in agreement with the way we do things and we are honoring the Lord, then we are doing the right thing. You can’t please everyone, and unfortunately some people are so focused how you can please them. You can only control your response and leave the responsibility of their response on them.

  • Jessica says:

    A while back I had to tell my mom “no.” Now that was hard! My mom wanted to help me out financially by starting a business for me to take over once it was all set up. It was business I had no interest in. To be fair, I didn’t say no right away. She definitely knew I was hesitant, but I didn’t outright say no either. In my heart I knew it was never something I would be excited about. I felt like if I didn’t go along with it I would disappoint and anger her.

    Finally, I wrote her a letter explaining my feelings about everything. I tend to be better on paper when expressing these types of things. I’m able to think through everything I want to say. That was a very hard letter to send. I was afraid that she would hold a grudge against me for the rest of my life. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Instead she felt bad for making me feel pressured to go into the business. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted! No longer did I feel a strain on our relationship, and no longer did I feel like I’d be stuck doing something that I knew I was not passionate about. Our relationship is as awesome as ever. I’m so glad I finally worked up the courage to say no!

  • Sheryl says:

    This goes along with what I am trying to do this year….to Be In the Moment. Well, there are only so many moments in a day and I found myself always thinking ahead to what else was on my to do list instead just enjoying the now.

  • B. says:

    Thanks for the article! We dealt with these issues when our first son was born. We hadn’t said no very often in the past and had to start saying no due to pure exhaustion and life being different now. Even using the above tips still didn’t appease some people, so you can only do your best. Sometimes people have a hard time understanding and want things to continue their way and you just have to choose what is best for your family.

  • Lucy says:

    I’m in this late, but I’m in a position and I need some advises. I moved to a small town, found a nice church where I met a widow lady and we’ve been a good friend, I visited her house a couple times. But I found out there are some disagreements I couldn’t understand between I and church, then I decided not to go to the church anymore. One thing I was worried about was this widow friend. She keeps calling me every week to ask me to go back her church and invite me her house numerous times. I was keeping a good relationship with her without attending the church, but she is planning to have my birthday lunch in her house, I said I’m so grateful as a friend and I’ll be there. But I just found out she invited a couple of her friends from her church as well and having this party. I’m not comfortable about this, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings. It’s too complicated also very personal reason for me to explain her about why I don’t want to attend her church, because I will hurt her feelings for sure, that’s not necessary. Nowadays, I feel overwhelming to even receiving a call from her. Any advises?

  • I recently read a good suggestion if you have a hard time saying no, you should plan to say “Let me think about it.” This will give you time to really consider if you’re able to say yes, and it helps people accept a no if necessary because they can see that you took the time to consider their request.

  • If you need to begin saying no, I recommend that you just start.

    The first few times you say no it’s extremely hard, but it does get easier over time.

  • Hannah Reid says:

    Thank you for your gracious thoughts!

  • ten b says:

    I’ve been working on saying “no” and extracting myself from several groups that no longer are a fit with us (ex: kids are in middle school, so we’ve dropped church summer camp for elementary schoolers). If it’s a reason like the kids have outgrown whatever program, you can explain that, and most folks understand, especially when you give plenty of notice. (“This will be our last year doing xyz as our youngest will be graduating the program this year.”)

    Some ways to “explain” a no, when you don’t want to give details:

    “it’s time for us to step down and let others have an opportunity to participate” in xyz. (This one is good for dropping something you’ve done for a while).

    “that doesn’t fit my schedule” or “we have other plans for that day/time”. And I know as I’m saying the words that calendar is empty and my plans for that day are to be anywhere else, doing just about anything else.

    “we have a previous family commitment for that time”, and if pressed further, “family stuff – you know how that goes. (with a sigh, and possibly an eye roll)”

    Thankfully, my husband has learned not to question what family commitment has slipped his mind until we’re in private. The answer is usually the same, nothing in particular, just spending time with my family. Not a lie – families need down time. And sometimes spending a lazy day at home watching movies in pajamas and having pancakes for supper is a great thing.

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