How to Say No and Set Boundaries

Learning how to say no and set boundaries will help you to protect and nurture yourself.  Saying yes when you really need to say no can cause stress, burnout, bitterness, and resentment.  If you are drained, have other plans, or just don’t want to say yes, you can learn how to say no without being steamrolled or intimidated.

Saying no is appropriate when it keeps you from stretching yourself too thin or protects your own time.  Unless your sole reason for saying no is that you despise helping people, then saying no is NOT selfish.  Learn how to say no and set boundaries for your own personal wellness, because you are worth it.

How to Say No Like You Mean It

What to Say. 

It is so tempting to give a reason when saying “no” because you worry the other person will think you are awful or selfish for saying “no” for no reason at all.  Providing an excuse simply gives others a chance to try to argue your decision in an attempt to change your mind, and makes it look like you might be open to solutions or negotiating.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t provide some context for your refusal. Here is what to say:

“No, I can’t.”

“I’d rather not.”

“No, I’m not able to.”

“No, I don’t have enough time right now.”

If it’s important to sugar coat it a little (with a colleague or professional contact, for example), you can add “Thank you for thinking of me” to the end, or offer to pass on some information or resources to them that might be helpful.

You could even suggest someone else they might ask for help instead! (evil chuckle)

Remember to keep it simple.  Avoid excuses, give minimal context, and stay firm.  You can do this.

Find the right words to say no without guilt.  (Sample wording for refusing demands on your time, your money, and your sanity.)

How to Say It.

Saying no like you mean it is about more than just using the right words.  Even when people are on the other side of the glass, or the sound is too low to understand on the video, you can still pick up tone, emotion, and relationship hits just from watching everything else their bodies are saying. You can tell when someone is serious and assertive, even without hearing their words.

More than Words

So much of what we communicate is nonverbal, and it’s important that we back up our words with all the other forms of communication at our disposal.  Nonverbal communication includes posture, body movement, body orientation, head angle, eye contact, facial expression.  And while we use our voice to speak the words, we can also control our speech volume, speed, and inflection.

Your Voice. Strengthen your message with a strong but even tone that doesn’t have too much inflection. Speak at a moderate volume–not too loud or too quiet.  Practice not speaking too quickly or slowly, too, keeping a medium pace.  Record yourself practicing and then play it back -you’ll pick up on details you might miss when you’re in the moment and you can work to correct them.  Mastering the voice will be especially important when you have to say no and mean it on the phone instead of in person.

Your Head.  Keep your head up and level, pointing your nose at their nose while making eye contact. Don’t let your gaze skitter away while you’re speaking, or you seem uncertain and undermine your message.

Your Body. Relax your shoulder and let your shoulder blades drop toward the floor, and don’t shrug your shoulders forward at all.  Keep your hands loose by your sides and your hands relaxed.  Face the other person fully, and make sure your feet are facing them, too.  Often people’s feet are pointing in another direction, which can send the message of uncertainty, indifference, or discomfort.

Learn the best way to say no in an email, even to a good friend. There’s even a template provided.

Setting Boundaries

What are Boundaries and Why Should I Have Them?

One of the best ways to protect your mental, emotional, and physical health is to set personal boundaries.  Personal boundaries are the limits you set to protect yourself from being used, manipulated, or violated by others. They allow you to separate who you are (and what you feel and think) from the emotions and thoughts of others.

If you have a history of setting weak boundaries with others, it will be more difficult for you to create stronger boundaries now.  But not impossible! Because of the expectations others now have of you, it will take time to prove to them that you mean what you say.  Start with the people in your life you are most comfortable and confident with to practice your boundary setting.  Once you have established your boundaries with them, you can move on to other relationships.

How to Set Boundaries

An assertive communication style is key to setting and maintaining strong personal boundaries.  Assertive communications styles not only help set up and reinforce boundaries, but also help to manage conflict effectively and prevent escalation.

The foundation of assertive communication is the assertive “I statement.”  Here are some examples.

“I’d rather not.”

“I would like to…”

“I need you to…”

“I feel upset when…”

These “I Statements” allow you to be direct in an assertive and non-threatening way.  They won’t always get you what you want, but they’ll move you in the right direction.  Consider these examples:

“I need you to look at me so I can tell you’re listening.”

“I feel upset when I trip over shoes when I walk in the door.”

“I would like to have a few minutes alone when I first get home.”

Warning—Avoid using “You Statements” that are simply “I Statements” in disguise. Do you recognize any of these?

“I feel upset when you’re an idiot!”

“I wish you’d go to hell!”

“I need you to shut up!”

“I would like to shove your head up your…”

Learning how to say no and set boundaries is important to protect yourself emotionally, mentally, and physically, and will reduce your stress levels and free up your time to do the activities that are most meaningful to you, allowing you to live a more authentic and content life.  And that matters.  You matter.

Remember to practice self-care as you work on this skill.  It can be a bit of a roller-coaster, and if you start feeling overwhelmed I recommend finding a good counselor to help you make these challenging changes.

Do you have any stories or ideas about saying no and setting boundaries?  Feel free to leave your comments below!

9 Replies to “How to Say No and Set Boundaries”

  1. Interesting post on how to be courteous to people by being cautious of the times on when to say yes and when to say no. I used to have a habit of shrugging my shoulder when I do not know how to answer someone’s question. But, after reading this, I think I may have to start watching my own behavior lest I may offend people.

    1. I think it’s important to be courteous to ourselves, too, and to say no sometimes, when saying yes would drain us or make us feel bad. Body language is important in many contexts, and shrugging when you don’t know how to answer someone’s question is pretty common. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. It’s the first time I read useful information about the subject of saying “No”. I have struggled with this for a long time but now I can say that I can say “No” when I feel like “No”. It is not at all easy. If only you article had existed years ago I could have spared myself a lot more! The tips for a good and solid “No” are pretty cool and I will keep them in mind because we all need to keep working on own positive “No”s.

  3. Hello, I really enjoyed your article! Very very informative! I have issues with setting bounderies, and saying no. I read your About page, and I also have had depression and anxiety issues over the years, and it is no fun to deal with. Working on some of the ways you describe to set bounderies could be of help during stressful situations. One of my issues all throughout my life is worrying what others think of me, or how they see me, and I think if I could let that go that could be half of my issues solved! Great article, very helpful, and I would recommend your site to others! Well done!

    1. I’m actually working on an article about how to care less about what others think of us. Keep an eye out for it. 😉 Thanks so much for the kind comment and for being here, Eric.

  4. I first off would like to say you have a good thing going here on your site and I really enjoyed reading it.
    On my comment about the NO boundaries…Its hard when friends only call you when they want something and you feel obligated to say yes like you owe them something and when you need them its an excuse! And we as Christians are to love everyone so it makes its super hard to really say what you REALLY want to say without being unloving and caring and speak the truth. But they know I speak my mind and are truthful but its hard to just say “NO”

  5. I think when I had trouble saying no some years ago to other people, this lead me to burnout but since then I’ve set boundaries to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

    I do agree with you that your body language must line up with what you are saying as people will doubt whether you’re serious or not.

    It certainly does help to be assertive when you feel that your boundaries are being threatened and I do feel that this can be done in a non threatening way as not to offend someone.

    We don’t need any extra stress in our lives because of somebody saying to us that we should do such and such, we’ve just got to put our foot down and say no when it’s right to do so.

    It doesn’t hurt to be reminded about this and you’ve done well to explain it all, this is a very good post, well done.

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