How to Say No When You Feel Pressured to Say Yes

Do you have a difficult time saying no? I do. At heart, I am a people-pleaser. I hate disappointing people.

Judges Holding Up a No Sign - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/OrangeDukeProductions, Image #17072506

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/OrangeDukeProductions

But at some point, you realize that you can’t say yes to everyone else. Attempting to do so puts at risk your own agenda and the things that matter most.

Recently, at the recommendation of my friend, Mary DeMuth, I started reading The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes by Harvard professor William Ury. It has strengthened my resolve to say No when necessary but to do so in a healthy, respectful way.

In the introduction to the book, the author explains that there are three responses to someone who asks us to do something we don’t want to do.

  1. Accommodation: We say Yes when we want to say No. This usually comes when we value the relationship of the person making the request above the importance of our own interests.
  2. Attack: We say no poorly. This is a result of valuing our own interests above the importance of the relationship. Sometimes we are fearful or resentful of the request and overreact to the person asking.
  3. Avoidance: We say nothing at all. Because we are afraid of offending the other party, we say nothing, hoping the problem will go away. It rarely does.

Sometimes, these responses spill over into one another, making a difficult situation worse. For example, we initially avoid the request, prompting a second or third request. We then get annoyed and attack the one making the request. This leads to guilt, perhaps an apology, and then accommodation.

There has to be a better way. Fortunately, there is.

Dr. Ury suggests a fourth strategy that doesn’t require us to sacrifice either the relationship or our own priorities. He calls this a positive no.

This simple formula employs a “Yes-No-Yes” response. “In contrast to an ordinary No which begins with a No and ends with a No, a positive No begins with a Yes and ends with a Yes (p. 16).”

A positive No has three parts:

  1. Yes: It begins by saying Yes to yourself and protecting what is important to you. I would also add the importance of affirming the other person.
  2. No: It continues with a matter-of-fact No that sets clear boundaries. I also avoid leaving the door open by saying “maybe,” as in “maybe I can say Yes to your request in the future.”
  3. Yes: A positive No ends with a Yes that affirms the relationship and offers another solution to the person’s request.

For example, aspiring authors often e-mail me, asking that I review their book proposal. Here’s how I respond using the Yes-No-Yes formula.

Bill,

Congratulations on your new proposal. Very few authors make it this far. Thanks for your interest in having me review it.

Unfortunately, due to my other commitments, I am no longer able to review proposals. Therefore, I must decline.

However, I can give you some guidance on how to get published. If you haven’t already done so, may I recommend that you start by reading my blog post, “Advice for First Time Authors,” In it, I offer step-by-step instructions for what to do first.

I also have just published an entire audio course called, “Get Published” which distills my 30-plus years of publishing experience into 21 learning sessions. You can read about it here.

I hope you will find this helpful.

Michael

You can find additional examples in a post I wrote called, “Using E-mail Templates to Say No with Grace.”

Interestingly, I rarely have anyone pressure me after receiving an e-mail like this. They typically respond by saying, “Thanks for your consideration. I understand. Thanks for getting back to me.”

Question: Do you find it difficult to say No? How do you typically respond? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://actuallykatie.com/ Katie McAleece

    The magic word here is “boundaries”- saying no sometimes really boils down to setting healthy boundaries for yourself. We aren’t super heroes, we can’t do everything. We have to say no to certain things to keep our own selves well.

    I think some people see that as being selfish but -to me- it simply means, “This is how I take care of myself.” just like eating well and working out.

    Thank you for this reminder! Something that many, many of us need. Very uplifting.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Well said, Katie!  It reminds me of Henry Cloud’s book “Boundaries”.  It’s one that every person should read.

  • http://www.bradhuebert.com/ Brad Huebert

    Every yes is a no to something else. The trick is to choose what we’re saying yes and no to in a way that builds a meaningful life. I like the Yes-no-yes structure. Thanks for sharing that. Mary DeMuth has been a good friend to me, too.

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      You got that right Brad. We get caught up in saying yes and forget what we’re saying no to. It could be family, ourselves, friends, or something else. We need to be careful and weigh the importance of our yes.

    • Jim Martin

      Brad, it took me a long time to learn what you said in your first sentence!  That is exactly right.  I learned this after realizing that I was unable to be a part of some great opportunities because I had said yes to so many other things.

  • http://www.irunurun.com/blog/ Travis Dommert

    This discussion raises the whole notion of “maybe”.  When does “maybe” make sense?  Perhaps when factors are outside your control?

    I learned so much from Ury’s famous book on principled negotiation, Getting to Yes.  Thanks for sharing this one!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I think you have to really be careful with Maybe, especially with kids. They are it as Yes.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Great question, Travis!  Of course, Michael is right when saying you have to be careful with Maybe.  I have gotten in a lot of trouble painting a vision of Maybe’s that didn’t pan out exactly as envisioned, because folks thought the Maybe was a promise and/or guarantee.

      However, I think there are times when Maybe can work.  Here’s an example of what I would consider a Maybe, or a “Conditional Yes”:  

      Sometimes folks will ask for my help with something that they haven’t fleshed out enough to be worth my time.  If the project could potentially become important to me (either based on the project, itself, or the relationship) AND it might warrant a future slot on my calendar, I might tell the person that I would love to work with them, but I can’t fit the project in right now (today, this week, or this month), but let me know when you make it to the next stage (past the impending deadline) and I would love to look at it again.

      This usually strengthens the relationship because they see that I’m interested and allows me to gauge their commitment (by seeing if they ever make it to the next project level) before committing my time and energy resources.  

      If they do come back after bringing the project to the next level, they have earned more credibility which may make them a priority.  Though, if I still can’t make the time for them at this point, I give them a polite “no”.  I don’t want to continue to string them along with Conditional Yes’s.  That would hurt the relationship.

  • http://www.thehahnhuntinglodge.com/ Nikole Hahn

    It’s not easy saying no. I’m practicing it now. I try to be too accomodating which brought me to a nasty bout of burn out last summer. 

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      I’m with you, Nicole!  Burn out and being unable to meet more important commitments are the results of not saying “No” enough.  Once you go through that experience and have good tools to do it, it becomes easier to say “No”.

  • http://www.junesjournal.com/ June

    I wonder if anyone struggles with saying No too much :)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I have never met him or her!

  • Lynn

    I definitely have a problem saying no and apply the avoidance-attack-accommodation technique, which makes me feel trapped and I start to despise the world. Coming from an Asian background, I was trained to respect elders in all aspect, sadly, this made me a “doormat” to be taken advantage of. After reading this post, I can’t wait to give a Positive No to an unreasonable request.

    • Jim Martin

      Lynn, please let us know about your experience with this.  Congratulations on your willingness to work toward a positive no.

  • http://www.brandongilliland.com/ Brandon Gilliland

    Thanks for sharing these tips! This is something that a successful leader needs to know how to do.

  • http://theblogpile.wordpress.com/ Peter DeHaan

    Brilliant!

  • http://danblackonleadership.com/ Dan Black

    Michael,

    While serving as a volunteer  youth leader I had to learn the importance of saying no. I served at a small church and their was plenty of opportunity’s to serve in different ministry’s. However my focus was in the youth department so I had an easy time of saying no to other areas, so I could focus my time and energy in that area. I understood my purpose and talents would best be used working with youth.  

    I’m going to put the book on my book list, I know it would better help me. Thanks for the tips and book recommendation.

  • johnmurphyinternational

    Michael, how many times have I found myself doing something and wondering how I get myself into this in the first instance! I also think that saying NO is just fairer all around when you know (!) that that is the correct answer in the first place.
    In your example, the great thing is that you responded – that is so much appreciated

  • http://www.thegeezergadgetguy.com/ Thad Puckett

    Amazingly, after I turned 50 I made a new self-discovery, or, at least, came to a new understanding about myself:  I am a pleaser.  I didn’t really understand that about myself, but I am.  

    How do you use the “Yes-No-Yes” model when the person is standing in front of you instead of emailing you?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I do. I think it works as well in person as it does with e-mail.

  • Pepita

    I read the book ages ago and forgot along the way. Thanks for reminding me. Just said Yes to something I really wanted to say No to. 

    • Jim Martin

      Pepita, 
      Your second sentence illustrates just how fast a yes happens.  Can I ever relate!  You go through you day and realize “just said yes to something I really wanted to say No to.”  I usually come away from this realization asking myself “What was I thinking?”

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  • http://www.n2growth.com/blog Mike Myatt

    Hi Michael:

    I’m not a huge fan using no. I wrote a column on Forbes espousing the benefits of helping people get to a yes as an alternative to using no: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2011/12/27/leadership-and-the-power-of-yes 

    I hope this perspective adds flavor to your discussion.

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  • http://www.theworld4realz.com/ Andi-Roo

    My family members tend more toward “NO”, so I’ve always tried to go the opposite extreme. Now I’m known as the girl who says “YES” to everything, & it’s finally starting to catch up with me. While I like that my family members all know they can depend on me while everyone else is still saying “NO”, I don’t like that no one is seems to pick up the slack, & I find I get more bitter with each uttered “YES”. I never want to become a person who says “NO” all the time, so this is great advice for me where I currently stand in my life. I can still be positive, dependable *me*, while not running myself into the ground. Thanks — I plan to bookmark this page for a constant reminder to make myself available in a less available manner, lolz! :)

  • http://www.TaraJohnsonMinistries.com/ Tara Johnson

    My entire music ministry is built on this platform. For years I said ‘yes’ to everyone because I feared their disappointment, their anger and was afraid that their disappointment equaled loss of love. After a bad battle with depression, God revealed to me that I was living to please everybody else instead of Him. After a trip to the doctor, reading “Boundaries” and an in-depth season of Bible study, I came to realize that Jesus was not a people pleaser: He is a God pleaser. He has restored joy back into my life and now I get to travel, speak and sing to help others battling this same problem!

    The methods outlined here are wonderful: I have called this the oreo method. lol! Thank you so much for posting!

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  • http://manyhatsmommy.com/ Manyhatsmommy

    I, too, am a recovering people-pleaser. I am going to see if this book is in my library system! Thanks for the recommendation.

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  • Chichiwambua

    I call this the sandwich method. It is a great Yes No Yes method with the Yes as the bread of the sandwich and the No being in the meat :-)

  • Vikkie

    I always accommodate and end being stretched too thin.I will definitely try to follow the approach you present.. Thanks

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  • P_d_ogren

    I’m sorry that won’t work for me right now.

    Or if the other person is requesting something inappropriate
    I’ll for give you for asking – but you’ll have to forgive me for not answering

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  • Unhappy

    I usually just fold and say yes. Then….I hate myself as well as the person who asked me to take up 4 hours of my day to watch her kids. I don’t know how to say no nicely. I feel like I just haven’t made plans yet so how can I say no. The truth is….at 7:30 in the morning my day has just started and I’m planning. She knows that so that’s when she swoops in and calls in desperation. Now I hate myself because I don’t have a day. What am I suppose to say….oh…I can’t help you out because I have to grocery shop or replace a broken mouse for the computer. These are all things that are somewhat flexible when she has a schedule. Ugh. I hate myself.

  • Cristina

    I am living with my niece, her husband and her little daughter in my house. Recently they brought a dog in the house, they slightly asked me, I couldn’t say no. My life is miserable because the dog is making a mess everywhere. How can I set boundaries? How can I stablish rules, I think they are abusing my kindness, I have more work trying to keep the house clean, the house smells like dog and I can’t stand that. I know is going to get worse every time. I don’t want problems with my sister but I feel so miserable, for that reason I have to accept her daughter and her family in my house.   

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  • Caitlin

    I want to use this opportunity to thank drstanleyspelltemple@hotmail.com for helping me get my lover back after he left me few months ago. I have sent friends and my brothers to beg him for me but he refused and said that it is all over between both of us but when I met this Dr. Stanley, he told me to relaxed that every thing will be fine and after three days and contacted him, I got my man back……Caitlin