How to say “no” – even to good things.
“I’m sorry,” I gulped, a lead weight in the pit of my stomach. “I just can’t commit to that right now.”
A friend had asked me to lead a team and I wasn’t sure how to say no gracefully. The choice felt complicated by our friendship and because the role benefited a worthy cause, but I knew it would be a challenge to squeeze it into my family’s calendar.
Even though I knew I needed to decline, I dreaded saying no and feeling guilty afterwards.
But a couple of years ago, I learned my lesson. That fall, my husband and I had too many commitments. September and October were full of back-to-back work trips, a book launch, a vacation, and a women’s conference I was helping organize—not to mention the usual work, school, marriage and parenting responsibilities. The full schedule meant that margins I thought would be tight were virtually nonexistent, and by the time November rolled around, I was exhausted and regretful. I was too tired to give my best to everyone, didn’t get nearly enough sleep, and felt like I was failing.
As fall turned to winter, I decided I never wanted to feel that overwhelmed again.
Sometimes our difficulty is not in saying no to the “wrong” things—organizations or commitments that clearly aren’t a good fit—but in saying no to the “right” things, too, like volunteering at church or at our kids’ school. It’s flattering to have someone ask us to help, especially if the cause is a good one. Who doesn’t want to feel needed, like what they do matters? Honestly, I do. Especially when, as parents, the tasks we perform on a day-to-day basis can be thankless and oftentimes unnoticed.
A friend once told me that, as parents, we teach our children not to say no to us. But as adults, those now-grown children (i.e. you and I) spend their entire lives learning how to say no again.
If you’ve ever struggled—as I have—to say no, here are a few tried-and-true tips:
1. Take time to consider the question.
Don’t give equal weight to every request—not everything is urgent. Just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you need to immediately respond. Give yourself permission to make people wait a little (unless you’re stalling rather than actually considering it, which I understand because I’ve done the same thing!). It’s helpful to put an end date on your answer so you don’t forget about it or procrastinate your decision, but it’s perfectly ok to give yourself a few days to think it over. Someone who is unwilling to give you the space to consider their request is likely impatient in other ways and may not be a good partner anyway.
2. Before committing to any new position or role, have a meeting with your family/spouse/trusted confidantes to discuss it.
My friend Julie and her husband sit down at the beginning of the year and reevaluate every commitment each member of the family currently has, then makes adjustments as needed. Give yourself the opportunity to analyze how much free time you actually have and can realistically commit. If you genuinely don’t have the time, you’ll feel less guilt in saying no.
3. Remember that every yes is a no to something else.
That fall, I learned the hard way that my yes to good things—a ministry I believed in, volunteering my time, even a trip I genuinely looked forward to—resulted in a no to equal (if not more important) things like sleep, family time, and real rest. Don’t risk getting burned out by not giving yourself enough time to take care of yourself and your family.
4. Consider your motivation.
Are you agreeing out of genuine excitement or because you feel obligated to agree? This is worth considering when we are making these decisions! A “yes” out of guilt is never going to work out well. While we can’t always just do what we are excited about, we need to be mindful of whether or not something is truly a good choice for us and our family.
5. Don’t forget to give yourself grace, especially in seasons with young children or crazy work schedules.
Can I tell you a secret? I’ve been meaning to join the PTO since my oldest was a first-grader. I’ve even gotten so far as parking in the lot in order to go inside for the meeting, but got called away at the last minute to pick up a kid. My oldest is now entering fifth grade, and I still haven’t gotten around to attending a meeting; though my youngest is entering kindergarten this year so I may finally have the margin. It would be easy to beat myself up about my well-intentioned but ill-timed attempts, but I haven’t. Our priorities change as our season of life shifts.
Remember the friend I was worried about letting down by saying no to the team she asked me to lead? She was gracious and told me she appreciated my honesty. You and I cannot do everything in this life—we were never meant to! It’s ok to say no, even to good things, if they are not right for us in that season.
How have you learned this lesson in your own life? Do you have any helpful tips for saying “no” in a kind way?
A career in journalism set Kristin Demery up to publish her own stories of living this wild, precious life. She now is an author of five truth-telling books, including the latest 100 Days of Kindness, and part of a trio of writers collectively known as The Ruth Experience. Kristin served as a newspaper and magazine editor and her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including USA Today. She still works behind-the-scenes as an editor for others while writing her own series on kindness, friendship, and living with intention. Find more from Kristin at theruthexperience.com.