Say No with Grace and Compassion
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
The hard part of saying "no," especially to friends and family, is that you simply don't want to hurt someone. After all, you think, they wouldn't have asked if they didn't really need or want it, would they? And, as social beings, most of us want to be helpful. Helping is part of survival for the family and community. It's bred into us at home, and reinforced in school, on T.V. and in all sorts of literature.
Also, we've been trained to consider saying "no" to be rude. Unacceptable. Provocative. We get that notion reinforced by the number of people who show anger or disappointment when we say it. Additionally, we get anxious when people are angry or disappointed with us. We feel guilty when someone obviously feels rejected.
If that weren't enough, many, many folks take "no" as a challenge or as a starting point for negotiation. In fact, salespeople are specifically taught to take "no" as the opening salvo in a battle to get to "yes." (Of course, if you are a parent, you already understand the challenge process and tactics from in-depth experience.)
Add all of that to the abiding human need to be needed, and you've got a whopper of a problem about saying "no."
Nevertheless, for whatever reason -- and just not wanting to do it is good enough -- you have to say "no." So you want to do it well. You want to be firm and believable. You want to have your "no" be accepted and unchallenged. You want everyone to walk away feeling good about it. Or at least without any resentments or damage to the relationship.
So, here are a couple of techniques you can use to put yourself in a good frame of mind and mode of communication to be both compassionate and graceful in refusing a request or offer:
• Smile. Smile a genuine, grateful smile of appreciation for having been asked to be of help. Say "no" in with a tone and attitude that reflects the gratitude of your smile.
• Imagine having to saying "no" to someone you love and really want to help. Picture it in full color detail. See that person's face and allow yourself to feel your affection and good will for him or her. Practice various ways of saying "no" while in that caring state of mind. Use the same image in the real situation as well as in practicing.
Try practicing variations on some of the following to find your own "no" voice. Get a variety of friends to practice with you and give you feedback on how you're doing. (One practice partner is not enough -- you need to practice with several people who have different perspectives. And, by the way, if someone you ask to help says "no," accept the refusal graciously.)
Ways to phrase refusals:
• Generic: "Thank you for thinking of me, but no, I just can't. Let me suggest someone else who might."
• Generic: "Sorry, but I just don't have the time right now. I think X might help out. Do you want his phone number?"
• Generic: "I'd like to help, but I'm not able to now. Is there another time that I could work with you on that?"
• Invitations to do something you don't like, by someone you do like: "Thanks, but the truth is I really hate baseball (or ballet or opera or whatever). Let's plan to do something we both like, some other time."
• When asked to do something that's just plain wrong (cheating, fraud, harmful lies, etc.): "No, I'm not willing to do that, and I'm concerned that you might be harmed (get in trouble) if you do that. Are you open to other suggestions?"
Take the time to write out a list of refusals of your own, similar to the ones above. Make sure to practice them so that you can deliver them calmly and kindly in the real situation and so that you are always prepared to say "no" effectively.
Be warned: no matter how compassionate and caring you are, some people won't take no for an answer and you'll still end up with a power struggle. Some people will be hurt. Some people will be resentful. And sometimes relationships will end when you don't give the other person what they want. You can only do your best.