Learning to Say No (In Business & In Life)

Christine Hill

young woman showing her denial with NO on her hand

I was recently struck by a powerful statement from Brene Brown: “The most compassionate people are also the most boundaried.” This statement completely rocked me. What does it mean?


As a compulsive people-pleaser and one given to fits of empathetic suffering, I’ve kind of seen a roller coaster effect in my life. One moment, I’m bending over backward to accommodate someone. The next, I’m turning a blind eye to someone I know needs my help. One moment, I’m blubbering over a Discover Card commercial, the next, I’m as cold as ice while an acquaintance tells me a story about her mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s.


My only explanation is one that’s always left me unsatisfied: I care too much, and sometimes I need a break. The problem is that the world is utterly saturated with problems. And once you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound, right? It’s easy to quickly become overwhelmed with the people who need your help.


But there must be a better way. There must be a way to be a helper, and yet preserve your own sanity.


Brown’s statement that I mentioned above helped me see that the answer lies in boundaries. Often, the answer lies in learning to say “no.”


The Advantages of Learning to Say No


You’re a better leader and communicator

Learning to say “no” is actually one of the qualities of an effective leader. Why? Because it’s a sign that you’ve learned how to prioritize things in your life. It’s also a sign that you’re not afraid to stand up for yourself and communicate things that others might not really want to hear. Learning to say no strengthens our resolve and self-confidence. It’s a reminder to ourselves and to those around us that our self, our time, our resources, and talents are valuable. Saying no is a sign of proactivity. Instead of constantly reacting to new situations, and new demands from others, you’re setting down framework and goals ahead of time.

Mother with daughter

You have time and energy for the things you actually want to do

As mentioned above, learning to say “no” is about prioritizing. It’s not necessarily a sign that someone else’s project isn’t important at all, but it’s a sign that something else–taking time with family, doing a personally fulfilling project, or simply taking time to decompress–is more important, and that’s okay. I’ve personally found that the most powerful effect of learning to say no is that it allows you to be more fully engaged and to enjoy the things you DO do. Instead of being constantly divided between should, coulds, wants, and needs, you’re in the moment, purposefully focused on something that you made a conscious decision to spend your time on.


You’re a better parent

We want to give our children every advantage in life, but sometimes that means setting an example of healthy self-care and being clear about your values and beliefs. Children, and especially teens, are hardwired to push boundaries and find where they end. When you are both clear about what is and what is not permitted, and consequences are clearly defined, it has two major side effects: children have a safe, reliable environment that they can depend on, and you have a less stressful time constantly reacting to what’s happening.


People learn to value your time

Saying no can be hard at first, but the beauty is that it gets easier and easier. Pretty soon, people understand where you stand on things. They know that you’ll do what you can to help out with activities on Thursdays, but you’ve reserved Fridays for yourself and your family. Once lines are firmly established, you won’t have to constantly battle to keep your ground.


You’ll learn more about yourself

Take the opportunity to find where your boundaries are, which things stress and stretch you the most, and which things you believe in and want to stand for. Knowing where to draw the line makes you a stronger person.


Boundaries Defined


Boundaries are about more than saying “no.” Being “boundaried” could be as simple as having a clear curfew that your children and their friends know and have learned to stick to. However, it needs to have more layers. Boundaries can include whether or not you’re okay with your daughter and her boyfriend sleeping in the same room when they visit for the holidays, or whether the dog is allowed to be in the kitchen while the family is eating. It might be whether people are allowed to come to you with problems while you’re in the shower, or whether you’re okay with driving your son’s soccer team to an away game. While most of life is judged on a case-by-case basis, boundaries are what you can fall back on when you’re worried about confrontation and disappointment.

Young women working late

Tips and Techniques


  • Take a day. If someone asks you to do something, tell them you’ll have to check your calendar, and you’ll get back to them by tomorrow. This gives you time to evaluate the choice to commit away from the immediate social pressure.
  • Don’t apologize or make excuses. Be clear that there are other, more valuable tasks in your life and that’s okay!
  • Stay positive. I made the mistake through my first year of college of avoiding certain teachers. If I knew that I had done badly on a paper, or if I had had to drop their class, I always worried that they would hold it against me. I learned later that most didn’t care that much, and I was missing out on the opportunity to make connections that I would learn and grow from. More importantly, I learned that I didn’t need to apologize for not always putting that teacher first. I had other things on my plate, and had to learn how to prioritize and balance. The positive relationships in my life would support that. So don’t avoid people and situations because you’re afraid of offending or feeling guilty. Be yourself, and watch how many people respect you for it.
  • Have consequences planned ahead of time. Laying down the law can be hard if someone has breached your boundary, but you never had a plan for what the consequences would be. Having pre-established consequences (i.e. if you sneak into dessert ahead of dinner, you have to forego any dessert for two days) means that you have effective communication between the people you care about.
  • Practice! It gets easier the more you do it.

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