How to say no...and not feel the guilt

Do you have a hard time saying no? Sylvia Cohen, a body language expert and a vocal coach, has shared her tips with Noon so that you can feel more confident saying “no” as a full sentence.

The inability to say a clear ‘no’ can cause all kinds of problems. Most of us do it, but why? From overwhelming exhaustion burnout, an inability to be able to hit work targets or simply the desire to really and truly get the most out of life, saying ‘no’ is no bad thing.

I have come up with several core areas that we need to focus on, in order to make those noes a lot easier to say and most importantly to not feel the guilt when you say it! These are: mindset, linguistic structure and the delivery of the no.

Step one, we need to really get an idea of the value of own time and what we want to achieve. We must understand that we are more valuable to ourselves, our family and children, our work and our colleagues, in fact everyone around us in our lives, if we work towards our strengths with maximum focus and energy.

It is impossible to be things to all people at all times. Often, we feel we are trying to hold and juggle so many different balls. It is therefore essential to get these set up into the different categories in our minds – for example the most obvious would be, children, work, home, partner.

  1. Decide on what your necessary objectives are for each of these on a weekly basis. For example, your work target could be finishing that report, the household/home target could be making sure that the weekly groceries are ordered. For the kids, on a practical level that they have their clothes washed but on an emotional level, that you make sure you spend a quality hour focused on each child. For your partner make sure you get that date night arranged.
  2. Be really clear about what these objectives are but then don’t be frightened to focus on yourself. This where the time management quadrant comes in. This management tool will  help you structure everything that you need to do and you may be quite surprised, as when you do this that a lot of the tasks you think you need to do, aren’t actually that important.
  3. Write down everything that you need to do on a weekly basis. Then write subsections for every area of your life for example, work, house and home, family relationships, friends and leisure time. Under each of these titles write down absolutely everything that you need to do, then you’re going to use your new best friend, the time management quadrant. This is going to help you understand how many of these things are ‘urgent’, how many of these things are ‘urgent and important’, how many things are ‘important’ and how many of these tasks are not urgent and not important?
  4. Divide a piece of paper into a quadrant and then on the first box you’re going to write ‘urgent’, in the next you’re going to write ‘urgent and important’, the next quadrant down on left hand side you’re going to write ‘important’ and then write ‘not urgent and not important’ in the last box. Now before you fill out this quadrant you want to look back at your notes and refresh yourself with what your objectives are for each of your subtitles.
  5. Based on your objectives, put every single task either into the ‘urgent’, ‘urgent and important’, ‘important’ or ‘not urgent and not important’. Anything that falls into not urgent and not important becomes the last thing you focus on. ‘Urgent’ are tasks that absolutely need to be done, however they might be urgent for other people not for you, so ultimately the quadrant you really want to be working from and focusing on is your own ‘urgent and important’ quadrant because anything important is working towards your own objectives and your important quadrant.
  6. Make sure that you are classing activities that keep you focused and relaxed in your ‘important’ quadrant, sometimes even in your ‘urgent and important’ quadrant, never put them in the ‘not urgent and not important’ quadrant because remember, you are the main energy source.
  7. Go into your diary and at the beginning of each year and diarise non-negotiable times for holidays and breaks, otherwise these simply won’t happen. We all know this to be true, they get pushed around and moved to suit other people. These breaks must be rooted in concrete in your mind and cannot be changed.
  8. The same for self-care, even if it’s just 20 minutes every morning or an hour and a half every week. Diarise the time that you’re going to take for yourself and again root this into your mind. You have to class this time as important and urgent because it’s ‘urgent’ that you keep your energy levels high and your focus high and ‘important’ in order to get everything else done.

How does this help us say no? The better we get at doing this, separating up our lives and prioritising what really is important to us, then the better we are going to get at responding to people who ask us to do things. If we build a structure, based on the four quadrants, we gain resources to understand very quickly whether the thing someone is asking us to do is urgent for them, or whether it falls into the ‘urgent and important’ or the ‘important’ category for us. If it doesn’t fall into either the ‘urgent’ or ‘urgent and important’ sectors of our quadrant, then it should fall into our category of saying NO.

Step Two. Saying no itself, the linguistic structures around the actual word, is something many people, especially women, find very difficult to say. What many of us do is to come up with a narrative or list of all the reasons that they are saying no, before they say no. This is called procedural linguistics i.e I am giving you everything that I need to say to back up my no, before I give you the no itself. Generally what happens is people end up overcompensating when they use these structures and actually their noes (if they actually get round to saying them and don’t get taught out of them) become less clear.

Before restructuring our linguistics we need to engage with the fact that if we are saying a clear strong ‘no’ then you’re actually doing yourself and the person who’s making the request, a favour. They will know where they stand and you know where they stand and ultimately you’re freeing them up to find another solution as quickly as possible. There is no miscommunication and most importantly no guilt.

Here’s the basic structure:

  1. Remember you can always buy yourself a little bit of time. If somebody asks you for something out of the blue and you’re under a little bit of pressure say, “do you know what, I’m just going to take 5 minutes to see what I’ve got on and get back to you.” Ideally you want to take a bit longer, could be half an hour, an hour, etc.
  2. Framing your no: Have an idea about what they need and why they are asking you to do this thing. Understand what you need and why you can’t do this thing. Go for a NO in the second sentence or better still in the first sentence.
  3. You have 2 options. If you give yourself some time, you say: “I’ve been thinking about whether I can pick up your kids on Monday afternoon from school and I’m afraid it’s a no.” However, if you’re answering in the moment you can just say “I’m afraid it’s going to have to be a no”.

Then give a very short explanation, which allows the person to understand why it’s a no and also why you saying yes would probably not benefit them. So, the NO from your end could be – “I’m under a huge amount of work pressure on Monday so it very likely that I’m going to be late for school pick-up.” Then, reiterate your no. “So, I’m afraid it’s a no.”

Basic structure is: Go for no in the first and second sentence. Tell them clearly in two sentences why it’s a no from your perspective, why it’s a no from their perspective and then reiterate that it’s a no.  If you’ve done that, you’ve clearly said no, why you can’t do it and you’ve also let them know why it’s not in their interest for you to do it for them, you’ll actually feel a huge relief and no guilt and your energy levels are going to increase significantly.

Step Three. For the actual delivery of the no, we can often get nervous or become frightened of being too direct and so we tend to use indirect body language: we slant our heads to one side and we gesticulate from our chest.

Get used to grounding your feet making sure your jaw is released and your breath has dropped down into your belly. Practice keeping your feet grounded and locating the deeper part of your voice when you deliver your noes. You actually want to practise this because what we are doing here is we’re changing our body language and our vocal patterns so that we’re going to sound completely certain in our ‘no’. It’s definite, it’s non-negotiable and it shuts down the question, completely. Practise standing with both feet grounded, knees slightly released so that your jaw releases and just wobble from toe to heal so that your pelvis starts to balance and you feel more breath in your belly.

You can use a gesture which is called the karma to locate the lowest registers of your voice to assist here. Place your hands palm down and imagine you’re dancing with a heavy basketball and practice your ‘no’ structure. This is going to make your ‘no’ resonate deeper within your ‘warrior’ voice (which is your affirmative voice) so you’re going to sound more certain. You can practise the delivery – start on the smaller things like, saying ‘no’ with your kids when they want more gaming time or more money, then try it out on your partner, then move onto friends and work colleagues. Very soon you will have got your ‘no’ polished and ready to go, helping you through any and every situation with absolutely no guilt whatsoever.

By Sylvia Cohen, body language expert and vocal coach

Visit Sylvia’s website at 

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One response to “How to say no…and not feel the guilt”

  1. Valentina says:

    Thanks Sylvia for sharing this article. I wish I could have read this years ago. I struggled a lot to say no, especially when I started my own business. Now I’ve learnt I can say no and feel empowered instead.

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