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Five Ways to Say No Gracefully

I’m a white belt when it comes to saying no. It still kind of feels like a foreign language; I overthink my word choice and stumble around incoherently. I worry that it’s coming out all wrong — arrogant or ungrateful or uptight.

Though I’m fully committed to getting better at saying no — to saying it earlier and with more clarity — I would still rather say yes. Yes is my comfort zone. Yes rolls off my tongue. Yes is fun and generous and… exhausting. I’m trying to teach myself that though yes feels good in the short run, it leads to overwhelm and martyrdom in the long run.

So, as I continue to learn the language of no, here are some tips I’ve gotten from the pros, which I’m finding hugely helpful. I thought I’d pass them on in case you are also struggling to get bilingual:

1. No, for now.

Whether you’ve got a book due (ahem) or a big deadline at work, a marathon coming up or a house renovation in the works, there is probably some big project that you can point to as the main source of your scarcity of time. The key here is to mean it. If you don’t ever want to do what is being proposed, don’t just put it off. See #2 and #3.

2. No, but here are some awesome resources.

If you don’t have the bandwidth, but you’ve got some knowledge or a network that might be useful, pass it on. This is a no-brainer. It doesn’t take a lot of your time, helps link individuals to organizations doing great work, and allows you to be generous without overextending yourself.

3. No, but have you tried our mutual friend?

You know how they say that one man’s trash is another’s treasure? Same goes for invitations. You might not be able to handle another consulting gig, but someone else is staring at an overdue bill and hoping for a referral. Even unpaid opportunities can be a lifeline for someone — a boost of confidence, a deep sense of fulfillment, a new community.

4. No, I can’t do that, but I can do this.

Sometimes you can’t meet someone where they’re asking you to go, but you can joyfully get halfway and make a huge difference. You avoid resentment and they get at least a little of what they wanted.

5. Let me think about it.

This isn’t exactly no, but it buys you a little time to reflect when you’re not in the heat of the moment and can make a more clear-headed decision. One smart friend told me that she especially chooses to say this when she notices that she is too eager to say yes. It’s a sign for her that something is awry.

Another friend told me that she and her co-worker bought little bells for their desks, and every time one of them says no she gives her bell a jingle. They fist bump and do a happy dance and whatever other silly, joyful thing is necessary to create a positive association with having healthy boundaries.

Ultimately, I’m learning to say no with more grace because I want to live with authentic generosity. When yes is overused it takes what should be a whole-hearted gift and turns it into an anxiety-producing check box. I don’t want to live a life measured by check boxes. I want to live a life measured by acts of unhurried love.

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