top of page
  • Writer's pictureEli

The Art of Saying No: Assertive Responses to Unwanted Requests

"The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything." ― Warren Buffett

Assertively saying "no"

In the pursuit of understanding the art of saying no, we journey into a realm where our language, emotions, and brain responses are intricately connected. From our earliest memories, we've associated "Yes" with support and motivation, while "No" often signifies restriction and disapproval. This connection between words and emotions has a profound impact, affecting our daily interactions.

Understanding the Brain's Response

When we encounter the word "No," it can trigger a negative response in our minds. This reaction is associated with a specific part of our brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). In contrast, "Yes" tends to evoke faster responses and activates a different area of the OFC associated with positive feelings. Interestingly, this connection between language and emotion can be traced back to our formative years, particularly when we interact with caregivers. Barriers to Saying No
For many adults, saying no is a great challenge, and this difficulty can be rooted in a myriad of psychological and social factors.
1. Childhood Conditioning: From a young age, we're often encouraged to prioritize obedience and respect, which can make self-assertion a challenging endeavour.
2. Fear of Negative Consequences: The fear of potential punishment or negative outcomes further deepens the reluctance to say no.
3. Seeking Approval: Many of us naturally seek approval and shy away from conflict, making it difficult to say no.
4. Guilt and Self-Worth: The mere thought of saying "no" can evoke feelings of guilt, especially for those who link their self-worth with helping others.
5. Lack of Assertiveness Skills: Some individuals may lack the assertiveness skills necessary to decline gracefully, sometimes resorting to passive responses.
6. Societal Expectations: Societal norms often emphasize accommodation and selflessness, making it challenging to establish personal boundaries.
7. Anxiety and Stress: The mere thought of saying no can be anxiety-inducing for some people. They may fear the repercussions or the emotional toll it may take on them. This anxiety can make it harder to say no even when it's necessary. As a result of this deeply ingrained reluctance to say no, we often develop certain assumptions as adults:
  • Expecting Consideration: We might feel that others should be considerate enough not to make unreasonable requests, leading to resentment. It's essential to recognize that others have the right to ask, and you have the right to say no. Will you exercise this right?

Assertively saying "no"
  • Anticipating Compliance: There's often a fear that, even if we say no, people will still expect us to comply. This concern can be valid, especially if we've consistently accommodated every request. Practicing assertiveness repetitively is key to changing this perception.

  • Seeking Acceptance: We might fear that people only like us because we do everything for them. It's worth considering whether these are the kinds of relationships we truly want.

  • Overcoming Selfishness Guilt: Some of us may believe that prioritizing our needs or asserting ourselves as equals to others is selfish. It's important to acknowledge that you do have the right to say no, attend to your needs, and establish boundaries. This is about being assertive and setting boundaries, not about excessive selfishness.

Why Saying "No" Matters: The Vital Role of Boundaries In a parallel to cell biology, think of the cell membrane as a selective barrier, permitting essential elements to enter the cell while keeping harmful substances out. This crucial component defines a cell's integrity, playing a pivotal role in its overall health. Similarly, a house's structure – its walls, roof, and foundation – gives it a unique character and identity. Our own boundaries, encompassing emotional, physical, and psychological limits, shape us into distinctive individuals with our values, beliefs, and priorities at the core. These boundaries essentially serve as the blueprint of our character, outlining our preferences, desires, and the lines we're unwilling to cross.
Just as a cell membrane must remain intact and functional to support life within, our personal boundaries, which dictate what we accept and reject, require ongoing maintenance to preserve our identity and well-being.

The Power of Assertiveness
Developing assertive responses is key to navigating this intricate landscape. It begins with self-awareness—understanding your own boundaries, needs, and priorities. Knowing what is acceptable and unacceptable for you is the first step in asserting your personal boundaries. Once you've established it, it's time to concentrate on the following steps to enhance your assertiveness in saying no:
  1. Acknowledge that you do have the right to say no.

  2. Decide on your position before you speak: If you're unsure, don't answer immediately. Take time to determine your willingness and consider asking for time to think.

  3. Clearly articulate your reasons for declining while also attempting to empathize with the other person's perspective. For instance, you might ask, "Could you help me understand your priorities?"

  4. Use assertive body posture: Maintain eye contact, confident body language, and a clear, audible voice. Consistency in verbal and non-verbal communication is essential.

  5. Approach with kindness and grace when saying no. A polite decline is often better received than a defensive response.

  6. Don't feel compelled to wait for others to agree with your refusal. State your decision clearly without over-explaining.

  7. Be prepared for potential negative reactions when you say no. Accept that people are entitled to their feelings and opinions about your response.

For those who seek a more in-depth approach to saying "no":

Exercise: Art of Saying No - Assertive Responses. By completing these steps, you can confront your fear of saying no and cultivate assertive approaches for various situations.

Assertively saying "no"
Part 1: Identifying Challenges and Fears:
a). List "Situations Where Saying No Is Challenging" in one column.
b). In another column, describe "What I Fear May Happen If I Say No" in those situations.
Part 2: Analyzing Your Fears:
a). Review your fears and spot common themes or patterns.
b). Identify the sources or reasons behind each fear, such as fear of disappointing others or fear of conflict.
Part 3: Developing Assertive Strategies:
a). For each fear and its source, brainstorm assertive responses.
b). Consider using your fear as a signal to establish and communicate your boundaries effectively.
Here are some practical examples of how assertive ways of saying no can be applied in a work environment:
1. Declining a Last-Minute Project: "I'm afraid I can't take on this last-minute project effectively due to the short notice. Let's discuss a more realistic timeline."
2. Refusing Additional Responsibilities: "Thank you for considering me, but I can't take on more responsibilities at the moment. Let's explore how to manage my current workload."
3. Politely Declining Constant Questions: "While I appreciate your questions, I need to limit interruptions to stay productive. Could we arrange a specific time for questions and discussions?"
4. Expressing a Negative Response to Inefficient Work Processes: "I'm sorry, but I can't endorse the current process. I've noticed areas where we could make improvements to enhance productivity."
5. Politely Turning Down Office Gossip: "I prefer to maintain professionalism at work. Let's ensure our conversations focus on work-related topics rather than engaging in gossip.
If you cannot say no, you are not in charge of your own life. Mastering the art of saying no is a skill that requires practice. Recognizing that your personal boundaries are your responsibility is a fundamental step in regaining control of your life and avoiding becoming a victim of others' agendas. It's crucial to grasp your own worth and desires while upholding kindness, compassion, and empathy. Saying "no" and prioritizing yourself is an act of self-care, not selfishness. Just as you extend empathy, assistance, and compassion to others, remember to offer the same to yourself. By striking this balance, you can nurture healthier, more respectful relationships while still putting your well-being first. Achieving this equilibrium is the cornerstone of a fulfilling and emotionally healthy life.
If you ever need assistance in establishing your boundaries, boosting your self-esteem, or training your assertiveness, please don't hesitate to reach out and schedule a free consultation. Kus Counselling has played a pivotal role in helping individuals and businesses with assertiveness training. We are here to assist you in shaping the quality of life you aspire to and deserve.

§ § Ames, D., Lee, A., & Wazlawek, A. (2017). Interpersonal assertiveness: Inside the balancing act. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(6).
§ § Banks, R. (2020). The keys to being brilliantly confident and more assertive: A vital guide to enhancing your communication skills, getting rid of anxiety, and building assertiveness. Author.
§ § Bolton, R. (2012). People skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts. ReadHowYouWant.
§ § Folkman, J. (2013, October 10). The 6 secrets of successfully assertive leaders. Forbes. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from
§ § Gallo, A. (2012, August 21). How to be assertive (without losing yourself). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from
§ § Molinsky, A. (2017, August 31). A simple way to be more assertive (without being pushy). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from
§ § Murphy, J. (2011). Assertiveness: How to stand up for yourself and still win the respect of others. Author.
§ § Vagos, P., & Pereira, A. (2010). A proposal for evaluating cognition in assertiveness. Psychological Assessment, 22(3), 657–665.
§ § A Proposal for Evaluating Cognition in Assertiveness, September 2010, Psychological Assessment 22(3):657-65 DOI:10.1037/a0019782
§ Ole Frithjof Norheim, Benedicte Carlsen, "Saying no is no easy matter" a qualitative study of competing concerns in rationing decisions in general practice : PMC1291367, DOI: 10.1186/1472-6963-5-70
24 views0 comments


bottom of page