How to Say “No” Assertively

Published: Jun 09, 2020
Modified: Jun 11, 2020


By AMA Staff

Boundaries in business and in life have been increasingly pushed by technology, new ways of working, economic uncertainty and momentous world events. In the end, though, making sure boundaries are respected is up to just one person.

Of course, you are that person, and saying “no” is the solution. But “no,” followed by guilt, can easily shift back to “yes,” followed by frustration—and ultimately burnout. It’s up to you to take intentional steps to avoid a situation that can turn your life into a continuous cycle of stress, anger, regret, and too little time to do the things that are most important to you—and to do them well.

Make sure your work-life balance is a healthy one by being assertive, setting definite boundaries, and communicating with honesty, confidence, and respect. Here are some helpful guidelines—especially important to remember if you find it difficult to say “no”:

Know what you want to do—and what you can do. Establishing limits first requires some objective introspection. Ask yourself, “What do I most want to achieve today?” It can be something discretionary or something you’re obligated to do (or both). Decide if it is, indeed, do-able. Then evaluate all the steps you will need to take in order to achieve it, and how much time you will realistically need to accomplish each of those steps, and thus, your overall goal.

Say “no” firmly and calmly. Saying “no” and then waffling about your preferences or your bandwidth suggests that your “no” can be massaged into a “yes.” Being respectfully yet assertively definitive when you decline the request is the first step toward maintaining your boundaries.

Use the word “no” as the first word of your response. “I don’t think I can get to it” can easily be perceived as “maybe I can get to it”—the exact scenario you’re trying to avoid. An unemotional “no” at the beginning of your answer shows resolve and respectful, firm assertiveness.

Give a brief, clear reason for the refusal. “I have an urgent deadline that cannot be rescheduled” is not easy to argue against. Make your reason for saying “no” reasonable yet unbreakable, and keep it brief enough to suggest you’ve got to get going now and this conversation won’t be a long one.

Avoid long excuses or justifications. “I have all these meetings and I need a little time between them and I have a lunch appointment and then I have to make a phone call” sounds busy, but also suggests you know how to open windows in your busy schedule to accommodate unscheduled requests. Stay calm and on point. Emotion, either from a perspective of pain or anger, undercuts your logical argument for declining the request. “I’m only one person!” can easily lead to an apology and “yes” after an extended emotional conversation. Take a breath, stay composed, and be concise and definite.

Suggest an alternative for satisfying the request. If there’s a reasonable alternate solution to the request that you can propose, do so. It will assuage any guilt you may feel, and hopefully will be appreciated by the person who made the request. It can also decrease the likelihood that declining the request will come back later to haunt you.

Boycott the words, “I’m sorry.” The natural tendency for most of us when declining a request or demand is to apologize, but in doing so, you’re setting a trap for yourself and signaling a weakness to the person making the request. You can say “no” and still be a nice person. Stay strong!

Be consistent in words, voice and body language. Inconsistency also conveys weakness and indecisiveness. This lays the territory wide open to a counter-argument in the other person’s favor, meaning you’ve allowed them to take one more step toward breaking through the boundary you’ve set.

Reinforce the “no” message through eye contact. There are few visual cues that are more effective at letting someone know you mean what you say than direct, uninterrupted eye contact. Go ahead—you can do it!

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