How to Say No to People

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Many people hesitate to say no, even when they are over-stressed, over-booked, and just too busy to take on anything else. If you struggle with this, then you’re not alone. But it's important to learn how to say no to people and their requests. Being unable to can contribute to more stress, which may eventually turn to resentment.

Fortunately, you can learn how to say no to people without causing hurt feelings or impaired relationships. This article discusses some strategies you can use to set boundaries, protect your personal time, and say no more often.

Why It's Important to Say No to People

There are a number of reasons why knowing how to say no is so important.

  • Saying no establishes boundaries: Boundaries demonstrate what you are willing to accept in a relationship and how you expect to be treated. They are important for relationship dynamics and for mental well-being. 
  • Say no limits stress: Taking on too much or saying yes to things you really don't want to do creates excessive stress. Stress can take a serious toll on your health and well-being, particularly when it becomes a chronic problem. 
  • Saying no reduces resentment: If you say yes when you really want to say no, you may end up resenting the person who made the request. While saying no can be difficult, it can protect the health of the relationship in the long run. 
  • Saying no can limit regret: If you say yes to things that don't align with your goals or values, you may experience regret in the future. Being able to say no to people means that you'll have more time to devote your energy to the things that really matter to you.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with saying no when necessary. This includes when you simply don't have the energy to do everything you're asked or when you want to prioritize self-care.

Recap

Being able to say no to people helps reduce stress levels and gives you time for what’s really important. 

Why Saying No Can Be Hard

One important way to pare down your schedule is to get good at saying no to new commitments. So why can the simple act of not taking on more than you can handle be so hard? Past experiences and fears for the future can both play a role.

  • You don't want to upset others: Maybe you've had people be upset with you when you've said no. 
  • You don't want to feel guilty: You might want to help others and fear that if you turn them down, you'll end up feeling guilty about it later. This is often the result of past experiences where you felt a lingering sense of guilt.
  • You think you can handle it: Even though it feels like too much, you might assume that you can handle it. Or you might want to be known as the person who can handle it. Either way, it ends up piling a lot of unnecessary stress and work on your shoulders.
  • You're a people-pleaser: Saying no can be particularly difficult if you tend to be more of a people-pleaser. Unfortunately, such tendencies can lead to patterns of self-neglect and self-sacrifice that are detrimental to mental health.

Whether you say "yes" instead of no out of guilt, inner conflict, or a misguided notion that you can "do it all," learning to say no to more requests can be one of the biggest favors you can do yourself and for those you love.

When to Say No to People

Knowing when to say no to other people can also be helpful. Every situation is different and will present its own challenges, but there are some common settings where you might find yourself struggling to say no.

At Work

Saying no at work is necessary at times, but it can also come with added pressures. Turning down projects might lead to fears that you will be passed over for promotions or raises. And you might worry that saying no to co-workers will negatively affect your relationship with them.

It is important to remember, however, that it is difficult to perform well if you take on too much. When you're overworked, it means you're not able to do your best. This can hurt your productivity and the quality of your work.

If you're having trouble saying no at work, remind yourself that you need to use your time to do your best possible work on the projects you are currently focused on.

In a Relationship

Saying no to your partner can be particularly challenging. While you might want to say yes to the things your partner wants or needs, it is important to protect your own needs and interests in a relationship. Sometimes, that means setting boundaries and saying no. 

When you create boundaries, you help your partner get a better understanding of what is important to you. This can help them know you better, which will ultimately strengthen your relationship. 

Because relationships are about give-and-take, saying no to your partner might mean making compromises. For example, you might say no to hanging out with your partner's friends on the weekend, but agree to attend a work event with your partner.

Being flexible and willing to compromise allows you to support your partner while still making time for yourself.

With Friends and Family

Saying no to friends and family can be difficult for many people. Sometimes this is because you don't want to disappoint those closest to you.

Friends and family are also the ones who know you the best, so they often can phrase their requests in a way that is guaranteed to get a positive response.

Because of this, finding ways to set boundaries and say no to friends and family can be especially important. In such cases, simply saying no and firmly standing your ground is often the best strategy.

You might opt to tell them why you can't comply with their request, but you also don't owe other people explanations, even if they are family. Instead, state "No, I'm sorry, but I won't be able to make it" and repeat as needed if they persist.

Recap

There are times when it is important to say no, but the situation and the people involved can make it more challenging. Saying no at work, in relationships, and with friends and family can create conflicting emotions. Finding ways to set boundaries and stick to your resolve can help.

Signs You Should Say No to People

If you're struggling to decide whether to turn down a request, ask yourself these questions. They might help you make a decision.

  • Does saying yes support my goals?
  • Does this project or request align with my values?
  • Are there challenges that would make saying yes more difficult?
  • Will saying yes to the request prevent me from doing something else that is more important to me?
  • Will saying yes help or hurt my mental well-being?
  • Will saying yes create more stress or contribute to burnout?

If saying yes will take away from the time and energy you need for things that are more important to you, then saying no to the request is probably the best option.

It is particularly important to say no to people if you think that saying yes will be bad for your mental health and stress levels.

How to Say No to People

While saying no can be difficult, knowing how to do it can make it easier. These strategies can help you learn to say no more effectively and with less emotional distress.

“I’m Sorry—I Can't Do This Right Now"

Sometimes it helps to stall until you have a chance to fully look at how saying "yes" to this new commitment may affect your life and the lives of those who already depend on you. Use a sympathetic, but firm tone.

If pressured as to why, reply that it doesn’t fit into your schedule, and change the subject. Most reasonable people will accept this as an answer, so if someone keeps pressuring you, they’re being rude.

It’s OK to repeat, “I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t fit with my schedule," and change the subject.

"Let Me Think About It"

If you’re uncomfortable being firm or are dealing with pushy people, it’s OK to say, “Let me think about it and get back to you.” This gives you a chance to review your schedule and consider your options.

This strategy also allows you to think about whether you want to say "yes" to another commitment. To make a decision, do a cost-benefit analysis and then get back to them with a yes or no.

Giving yourself time to think helps you avoid letting yourself be pressured into overscheduling your life and taking on too much stress.

"I Can't Do This, But I Can Do That"

If you would really like to do what they’re requesting, but don’t have the time (or are having trouble accepting that you don’t), it’s fine to say no to all or part of the request, but mention a lesser commitment that you can make. This way you’ll still be partially involved, but it will be on your own terms.

When Saying "No"

  • Be firm—not defensive or overly apologetic—and polite. This gives the signal that you are sympathetic, but will not easily change your mind if pressured.
  • Be clear. If you decide to tell the person you’ll get back to them, be matter-of-fact and noncommittal. If you lead people to believe you’ll likely say "yes" later, they’ll be more disappointed with a later "no."
  • Skip excuses. If asked for an explanation, remember that you really don’t owe anyone one. “It doesn’t fit with my schedule,” is perfectly acceptable.

Examples of How to Say No to People

If you are still struggling to find the right words to say no, you might find some of the following examples helpful:

  • "I'm too busy today. Maybe I can help out some other time."
  • "I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that. Is there some other way I could help?"
  • "I'm feeling overwhelmed with work right now, so I'm going to have to take a raincheck."
  • "I'm not qualified to help with that project."
  • "That sounds really fun, but I won't be able to make it."
  • "No, I have a previous commitment. Maybe next time."
  • "I'd love to help, but I can't right now. Could you ask me again later?"

A Word From Verywell

Remember that there are only so many hours in the day. This means that whatever you choose to take on limits your ability to do other things.

Even if you can fit a new commitment into your schedule, if it’s not more important than what you would have to give up to do it (including time for relaxation and self-care), you really don’t have the time in your schedule.

In addition to learning how to say no to people, you may also find it helpful to research strategies for finding time if you're too busy. It's also important to learn to set boundaries in general.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Stress.

  3. Kaufman SB, Jauk E. Healthy selfishness and pathological altruism: Measuring two paradoxical forms of selfishnessFront Psychol. 2020;11:1006. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01006

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.