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How to Say No in a Way That is Firm But Kind

We can say no in a way that is firm but kind.

Sometimes no is the right answer for us to give, but how do we actually say no? The word itself is so simple—only two letters—but it can be a difficult one to say.

We’ve looked at three reasons to say no when that is our honest answer. Now, let’s the words we actually want to say.

I know that when I’m nervous about giving someone a no I tend to go to an extreme. I might go overboard with excuses, rambling on and on about all the reasons I just can’t possibly do what they’re asking. This approach tends to sound like what it is…making excuses and begging them to understand.

I sometimes give an abrupt no without any sort of explanation. This is likely to sound more harsh and angry than I intend.

If saying no feels hard enough, I might default back to a yes I don’t really mean because it seems easier in the moment.

All of these options feel icky, but we don’t have to respond in ways that are fearful and groveling or harsh and rude. It’s helpful to remember that saying no is about choosing what is right for us, not about rejecting the other person. We always have the option to respond with kindness.

Buy yourself time

For many of us, immediately agreeing to a request is a habitual reaction. It’s a big leap to shift from giving an automatic yes to a well-worded no while the person asking is staring at us expectantly. One of the first things to do in learning to give a no that is confident and kind is to buy ourselves some time.

Buying ourselves time helps us break the impulse to immediately agree to anything asked of us without going to the opposite extreme of automatically refusing. It gives us a chance to think through what we truly want our answer to be while we’re calm and not under immediate pressure to make someone else happy. It also gives a chance to plan a response we can feel good about.

Buying time can be as simple as saying something like…

I need to check my schedule.

I’m going to have to get back to you.

I’ll let you know by Tuesday.

How soon do you need an answer?

Once you’ve decided you want to say no, try using these three ingredients to build your response.

Begin with appreciation

Taking a moment to acknowledge the request starts your response on a positive note. It shows the other person you are listening and that their request matters, even if you are not able to give the answer they hope for. Try saying something like…

Thank you so much for asking…

I’m honored that you trust me with this project…

I’m touched you thought of me…

I appreciate the invitation…

Politely decline

Now is the time to give your answer in a firm but kind way. We can be honest without over-explaining and we can be firm without being harsh. Try adapting these responses to fit your situation…

I have other plans…

It’s not a good fit for me at this time…

I’m focusing on other priorities right now…

I’m going to pass…

End positively

Just because we don’t want to do something doesn’t mean we can’t wish the other person well. We can show we care even when we don’t give the desired response. Ending our response on a positive note will feel good for us and for them.

Of course, we don’t want to imply we’ll give a different answer in the future unless we mean it. It’s not fair to the other person and it puts us in the position of saying a difficult no again and again. With that in mind, here are a few examples…

I hope you have a terrific time.

Good luck on your project.

Thanks for understanding.

Let’s get together once I get past this deadline.

Saying no still doesn’t come easily to me. It’s a skill I need to practice. Breaking my response down into these clear components makes it less daunting. I hope you find this framework helpful, too.

I’d love to know…what helps you give an honest but kind response? What is your biggest struggle with saying no?