Advanced Tactics in Saying No

Saying no should be required learning for the 21st century.

Why? Because we are soft. We have become so through a series of coercion methods that have been used on us since we were infants. So we are eased into it by our parents and our peer groups, and by a variety of authorities that claim control over who we are, what we do, what we spend money and time on, and more.

No is a fundamental act of control— maybe the most basic one there is. I suspect that children begin to say no once they begin to recognize that they are a separate person in the world. It is significant, then, that we learn to say no again as adults. But it’s difficult.

Previously on this blog I wrote a short, introductory guide to saying no to basic 21st century things that take up our time, including email, mobile phones, mail, and more. But that is not enough.

The easiest things to say no to in this world are the most distant. The hardest ones are the closest. So we end up being able to treat our weak ties poorly, while our close friends end up thinking we’re pushovers.

This is not the way life is meant to be. You need to own what you are by not letting others control your life. That starts today.

The art of saying maybe

I actually don’t believe in saying maybe (although I might click that Facebook button sometimes) because I feel like it’s the most wishy-washy, annoying thing you can do to someone. Will you show up? Will you not show up? Who fucking knows!

It sucks to have someone like that coming to your party. Don’t be that way.

This is why I discourage the use of the word maybe, but for the purpose of this exercise, I would like you to start saying maybe every time you want to say no, but usually end up saying yes anyway, often because of guilt.

Try I’ll see how I feel, or let me see if my girlfriend’s doing anything that day. Now, make no mistake, these are cowardly things to do when you don’t have the balls to say no, but they’re better than outright saying yes. These are baby steps.

If that’s still too big for you, see below, you big wuss.

The art of limiting the yes

Being even minutely internet famous means getting a lot of random requests from people. This means that anyone in this situation gets very good at limiting their commitments (or end up overworked). You know who you are.

The first step towards limiting this, or anything that’s too demanding, is to say “yes I will help,” but being very specific about how. This is particularly helpful if you want to say yes, but if you think it’ll be a lot of work or you’ll end up too spread out.

I got asked to help an acquaintance with their blog the other week and they wanted to know if I could help by publicizing it, etc. So I said, sure, but then I said “You have three tweets. Use them wisely.” Very clear, no?

This trick is a great way to make sure you’re not too indebted to someone by saying yes to them unconditionally. It also ensures that someone knows the value of your time.

Feeling like less of a spineless jellyfish yet? Awesome.

Let’s move on to practical tips.

How to say no to your boss

Of course, the ultimate in saying no to your boss is quitting. We’ll talk about how to do this some other time. For now, some good methods to say no to extra work and staying late.

Display your workload and schedule. Does your boss even know what you do, really? How long added tasks take needs to be clear to your boss, and it’s up to you to tell him. If he knows what you do and why it’s important (as well as what other deadlines you have), you’ll be one step closer to having him respect them.

Make clear your personal commitments. Do you have sculpting on Tuesdays, or the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at lunch? Cool. Let him know your personal plans matter and make them obvious ahead of time. Maybe even explain how they help you work better or somesuch nonsense.

Verbalize how long each task will take. Ok, that sounds like it should take about 5 hours, does that sound right to you? If you’re continuously clarifying this, your boss will stop underestimating the workload of each task he assigns you.

Ask when each task should be completed. When you show your deadlines to your boss, and he knows what you have on your plate, and he knows how long each of them take, the next thing is to ask when you should fit them in. Try this: cool, would you like me to put that between Herp project A or Derp project B? I want to make sure they can all get done on time.

How to say no to your girl, boy, spouse, lover, or donkey

I knew a girl one time whose boyfriend showed up super late at her door, and she was upset so we had talked about it. I told her to call and say it was unacceptable. She did this. He brought flowers and apologized the next day.

Whatever form of life you’re currently mating with, you need to get really good at keeping your boundaries clear with them. What’s acceptable and what isn’t needs to be obvious for the sanity of the relationship or you’ll become resentful, “whipped,” or just get walked all over and get no respect.

A wise person once told me that when you tell people where the line is, they know not to cross it. Saying no in your relationship requires you knowing what is right or wrong, and to communicate it– just not at that moment. Just like any social contract, it needs to be discussed before or after, but not during, a negotiation (otherwise known as an argument). And discussion of any contract always works better when you include the word because.

Because is a magic word that helps people see your inner workings. Saying no works well with it– in fact, because may be the secret sauce that helps people see each other’s patterns, and avoid stepping on their toes.

I suspect the essence of keeping happy relationships is essentially clarity and boundary negotiation. So don’t be afraid to step up to the plate, especially since no one can read your mind.

Stop feigning guilt

Now we’re getting into the hard stuff. I know that when I say no, it’s very easy to couch it with things like “I’m sorry” and “maybe next time.” We do it because we want to make clear that we want to help, etc, but this is really just a vestigial reminder of our previous, spineless self.

It’s ok not to feel guilty, and we don’t need to fake it, either. In fact, in some cases it’s disrespectful to our current engagements, in the sense that oh I really wish I could do this, but I have to do that instead, as if a parent is forcing you.

Guilt is often implied more than spoken, so if you’ve stopped implying guilt through your words, you next do it by changing your tone of voice. Try saying I can’t the same way you might say a sandwich when someone asks you what you had for lunch. Practice it.

Saying no for real

I read an article in Esquire magazine last month (I think) that talked about a guy who was just answering no instead of doing the usual rigmarole of I can’t, I’m sorry, etc. He said it was freeing, and that’s because it’s what I would call an act of control— something that makes you feel like you have personal power that you can wield to keep your life in your own hands.

This is an important step, if only to experiment with it. You don’t want to become a douchebag, but you do want to see how a straight NO just shuts people down amazingly quickly.

When I was young, I remember my father doing this to homeless people. I found it deeply embarrassing then and I’m not sure I could do it now either, but you should find someone to subject this to that won’t hate you. A sales clerk or someone who is paid to talk to you (customer service, etc) works well.

Another way of doing this is to interrupt a sales/telemarketing call (that we now apparently get from our own mobile phone companies and banks, ugh) by just saying “I’m going to hang up now,” then doing it. Again, these are just experiments, but they’re worth trying.

When you should say yes

Now, one more thing– this post is to help you say no for when you know you should be doing so, not to help you say no to everything. Whenever you’re uncertain, you should be saying yes to speed up the learning process. This ensures that next time, you’ll be sure to say no. That’s when the above applies.

Next: How to get children to shut the hell up

Am I kidding? Who knows! But please subscribe just in case.






13 responses to “Advanced Tactics in Saying No”

  1. Krash Coarse Avatar

    Excellent post, my friend. Elton John was wrong: “Sorry” is no the hardest word, “no” is. I don’t like being apologetic for how I feel. If I feel you’re being a DB, and you irritate me enough, I’ll tell you, point blank. Doesn’t mean I don’t like or respect you in other circumstances. But my version of “no” may involve “shut up” if you’re polluting my earspace/mindspace. Or I may just leave. “Voting with your feet” as in un-conferences is a brilliant concept. Great thing about the internet: I don’t HAVE to be here on your blog, Twitter, Facebook, what-have-you… I WANT to be where I am. If I’m very rarely on Twitter it’s because it has become a shitstorm for me. YMMV.

    Thanks for the reminder that the internet is about what I want to consume/participate in.

  2. Barron Avatar

    Awesome Julien. I read the Esquire article you mentioned and that really inspired me to try saying flat-out No more often. It’s tough in practice because we’re so used to being nice and for some reason “no” just doesn’t seem nice to say. But it’s definitely necessary and from now on, I plan on saying no with the same intonations as if someone asks me what I had for lunch. (Great tip)

  3. Danny @ Firepole Marketing Avatar

    Hi Julien, I’m new on the blog, and really love this post about setting boundaries and taking charge of what matters for us. I liked it on Facebook. Thanks!

  4. Rebecca Avatar

    A fantastic post, Julien! I have a lot of trouble saying no. But I’m learning. And yes, you’re right: It does feel good to say it, to feel you have the power and control over your life and actions; no-one else. I’ll be sure to try out your tips – thanks!

  5. Michael van Rensburg Avatar
    Michael van Rensburg

    The thing I love most about your blogs, is how clearly you do not care what the Collective thinks about you.
    If you were a politician, you would have my vote, whatever the hell your policies were!

  6. Ryan Critchett Avatar

    Nice last sentences!

    Dude.. good post. How did we get so pushover ish? It’s nuts man.

    I’m with you on this one for sure Julien. It’s cool of you to put it in the context of experimentation. I’ve been doing the same kind of shit.

    My experiments have been with being super definitive to those people who unconsciously waste other people’s time.

    I work in IT as a side job, to fund my projects, and I talk to a lot of owners, head honchos, and well.. some douchebags (who doesn’t?).

    A lot of them will talk for 6 minutes about nonsense, when there are really only about 30 words that need to be said to get the appropriate messages across.

    I’ve been just cutting people off with laser targeted, situation relevant questions as an experiment to condition them to be concise. Works wonderfully.

    It’s good to draw the line between rude, and not letting people abuse your time. Definitely awesome to learn to say no.

  7. @alanrae Avatar

    On the Maybe front, I always rather liked the definitions of the difference between a Lady and a Diplomat.

    A lady says No when she means maybe, maybe when she means yes and if she says yes she is not a lady.

    A diplomat, by contrast, says yes when he means maybe, maybe when he means no, and if he says no he is not a diplomat.

    Not to devalue your excellent post btw.

  8. Lance Avatar

    Hi Julien,
    I liked this article a lot. What you say is not only very true but also something that should be read by many more people.

    To that end how about you take a look at you site’s design from a user readability perspective cos’ man!.. it is just inviting people to give up and click away!

  9. Howard Stein Avatar

    My mother is 86 and lives ten thousand miles away. (true) I call her and get ice treatment for weeks. Last call was abusive. I wrote an email which an office will print out for her. I said, “There are some things you do not get to do.
    You do not get to treat me like trash.
    If you want to contact me, do so. Use the Post Office.”
    And I did not make the scheduled calls.
    So parents are not immune from no.
    They walk over us more effectively than anyone.
    To which I say no!

  10. Howard Stein Avatar

    @Lance, are you an aficionado on website design? This is one of the most original looking sites online and I never get tired of looking at it.

  11. Peter Paluska Avatar


    Excellent work, mon ami.
    All I can say is, you should try living in Japan.;-)

    Thanks for the insights and wisdom!


  12. Roland Wijnen Avatar

    Hi Julien. Very nice post on this important topic. When you’re not able to say no, then you’re working on somebody else’s goal instead of your own goals most of the time. Doesn’t make much sense to me.

    People should care more about their own goals and the time spent on them, instead of meeting expectations of others. Actually, I wrote a guide ‘How To Say No’ to support people in saying no.

    When you talk about ‘saying no to your boss’ you mentioned that people should display their workload and schedule. I’ve found that people don’t always have a well organized schedule. They have their day planned (controlled) by co-workers or their boss throwing tasks at them, instead of planning their day.

    And people that do plan their day, make the false assumption that their boss is aware of their workload and schedule because he assigned most of the previous tasks and projects. Obviously, that is hardly ever the case. Therefore, like you said as well, it’s so important to verbalize how long a task will take.

  13. Tony Avatar

    Hey man, I really dig your writing style. It reminds me a lot of my own. I teach guys how to get laid and am often complimented on my masculine writing style.

    It sounds like you are a Hemingway fan. A Picasso type.

    I’m seriously considering leaving the seduction thing and moving into … self help, lifestyle, nomad, badass thing.

    Keep it up.

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