Say no assertively: establish your boundaries

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A small word. Loaded with meaning, nuance and connotation.

Is it easy for you to say ‘No’?

I was asked recently at a workshop about how to say ‘no’ assertively and confidently, without sounding aggressive or being perceived negatively, and I know this topic is on the mind of many of you.

Today we talk about saying no assertively so you can establish your boundaries. This is for you, if you are the person who usually says yes. Especially when you mean no.

What you will learn in this episode:

  • How does it make us feel to say no?
  • Start with your boundaries- what is a red line for you?
  • What’s the power dynamic in the relationship?
  • How to say no assertively
  • What to say
  • How to say it

Find out more:


Hello and a very warm welcome to Cultural Communication Confidence, with me Victoria Rennoldson, and today we’re going to start with something a little bit different: no. No. No. No. How easy is it for you to say no? Can you say no confidently, and assertively, without sounding aggressive? This was a question I was asked at a recent workshop, and I felt this was a brilliant topic for today’s podcast, because putting in place our boundaries can sometimes be very challenging.

Being able to say ‘no’ can be really challenging at work. So how do we do this successfully? Well first of all, we have to understand why it’s challenging to us, and if we dig deep into the psychology of saying no, there may be many reasons why we feel uncomfortable with it. It might be that we feel guilty, if we say no, and that we should be helping the other person. It might be that we feel like we are a people pleaser, that we want to do the best by others, and actually it’s really hard for us to turn them away. It might be that you find it difficult culturally, so maybe one of your cultural values is more towards indirect communication, so saying no is really challenging for you, particularly to somebody face to face. It might also be that no for you sounds like you’re rejecting the other person, not just their request, or the thing they want you to do, but actually genuinely saying no to the person feels like rejecting them. So as you can see, it’s quite complicated, there’s lots that goes on in our mind, even as we contemplate saying that short small word ‘no’.

So, how do we do this? How do we move forward and actually say the words in a way that is assertive and confident? Well, we have to start with our boundaries, and understand: where are we letting our boundaries slip? Now, this is like understanding: where is your red line? Where are you going to stop and not go beyond? And this can move and evolve over time, but consider this: where are you stressed or overloaded or overcommitted? That might be a red line, there might be a certain level of capacity that you have right now to commit to things. You might consider: where is there a limit, a boundary, to how you want to operate? Maybe there is something that goes over the red line when it comes to your own cultural values or preferences for interacting and operating in the workplace. So, for example, that might be when somebody asks you to do something that compromises those values, such as treating people in a different way from how you like to treat them, or it might even be asking you to take a risk that feels uncomfortable to you. So values is another area.

There also might be a boundary for you around being asked to do something that is not in line with your goal, and that if you take it on, is distracting from what you need to prioritise right now. So start with your boundaries, and I think this is quite helpful exercise to think now, so before you get put into the position where you need to say no, you’re very clear about what is important to you, and where you’re not prepared to compromise. And remember, those boundaries can move, depending what’s going on in your life, but you need to have an active view on them at any one time. So once you have the boundaries, we then need to think about the power dynamic of ‘no’ What I mean by this is, who is asking you to do this? What is the power dynamic of that person and relationship with you? So, is it coming from your boss? Maybe it’s coming from an external person, such as a customer or a client, or maybe it’s coming from one of your own team members, a co-worker or a peer. Depending on who it is, that may change the view that you have about how likely you are to say no. For some people they might feel like they can’t say no at all to the boss, or to an external customer or client, and that will depend a little bit on your cultural values, and how you relate to the cultural value of hierarchy and power distance. But even let’s say that you are working in a very hierarchical organisation, or within a structure that has very high power distance levels, it is still possible to say no, but what you might need to think about is HOW you say no. And you might need to consider that you can’t say no to, for example, the boss, in front of other people. That might need to happen in a separate private conversation, behind closed doors. You also might need to express it in a more indirect way, rather than being direct, but it is still possible to say no. So that’s the power dynamic.

I’m sure you’re all now very keen to understand how we actually do this, how we say no. Well, the first thing in all of this is actually what we DON’T say. So I encourage you to put on the ‘pause’ button, and just breathe, when somebody comes up to you and makes a request for something you don’t want to do. That pause button is really helpful, because it stops us jumping into responding – well actually, it’s not really responding, it’s reacting. And what happens in that situation is really two things. Either: 1 – your brain, even though it’s screaming ‘no’, just says ‘yes’, which of course, is not so helpful. And alternatively, you do say ‘no’, but it ends up being a very long and detailed explanation, and it feels very uncomfortable, and perhaps the other person, feeling that sense of discomfort, tries to push against this, and find out if you’re really committed to that no. So start with the ‘pause’ button, and take a breath. And you have to ask yourself: is this actually a genuine full ‘no’ or is this a no ‘not now’? Because actually, one of the routes, one of the ways to say no, could be to delay. It could be: ‘this is not possible right now, but let’s talk about it next week / in two weeks’ time’. Another route could also be ‘no it’s no right now, but I wonder if… Maria could help you?’ And that would be an alternative – offering support, by saying there might be somebody else in the team who could help them at this time.

So consider that: is it a full no, or is it a no right now? I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this episode about the cultural element, and of course that is important as well, consider how you might deliver that message, particularly if you’re working in an environment where people have very different cultural values to your own. I’ve done previous episodes all about cultural values, so I’ll put the links in the show notes to a couple of those, in case you’re interested to learn more about this. But, let’s now come to actually what we say. Well, I think it’s a really good way to approach this by acknowledging what has been said. This is recognising what it means to the other person, demonstrating your empathy, that you know this is important to them. What that actually looks like, or sounds like, more likely, is expressing that in some way, such as: ‘I hear this is important to you, I see this is urgent’. Even that little acknowledgement means that the other person understands that YOU understand. That you’re not trying to be resistant for being resistant’s sake, okay? So it starts with that acknowledgement. Then it comes to what we say, to say no. Well there are many different ways we can do this, you can start with expressing thanks – you could say something like: ‘thank you for the opportunity, and I’ll need to pass this time’. So that is one way. You could also say something like: ‘I really appreciate that you’ve come to me with this, and right now I’m at full capacity’. It could also sound like: ‘I would love to help you with this – I’m afraid I can’t prioritise this at the moment.’ So you can keep it very simple, you don’t have to go into lots of detailed explanations around what else you’re doing, and why you can’t do it. But it’s also expressing in a way that says to the other person: ‘I get it, and thank you, and it’s not for me right now’. So you can play with those words, find the right words for you, but it’s really about those concepts and ideas that will help you say the ‘no’.

Now, HOW you say it is also just as important as WHAT you say. So what I would encourage you to do is, to think about how you’re saying it clearly and firmly, without sounding negative or aggressive. Pay attention to your voice, what your voice is doing, make sure your voice sounds positive. Think about your body language, so if you’re sitting or standing, making sure you look open and friendly, but also firm, yeah? And what I always say to people is: make sure you practice this. So if this is an area that you know sometimes is challenging for you, you’ve ended up saying yes to things when you really meant no, this could be an area for you to practice, either by yourself, so literally to a mirror or an empty Zoom call or empty Teams meeting, and just practice saying the phrases and observing your body language. If you want to take it a step higher, and more advanced, then you could even record yourself saying no in a particular situation, and see how that comes across. And finally, if you want to take it even further and get my feedback on this situation, and get my feedback to your particular challenges, then I would love to help you, so please reach out to me and let’s talk about helping you to say no, and put in place your boundaries, when your communicating at work. And I’ll put the link in the show notes so you can book a discovery call with me.

Now, as we come to the end of the episode, let me ask you: where are you not saying no enough today? Where do you know you need to put your boundaries in place more firmly? And what element of this today has helped you? Is it more of the framework piece, of thinking about how you approach it? Or is it more about the physical words, and how you say them? I would love to know, so please feel free to reach out and contact me on LinkedIn, you’ll find my details in the show notes below, but I’d love to receive your messages, to find out what resonates particularly with you today about this episode, and of course, if you found it valuable and helpful, I would greatly appreciate you sharing it with somebody else. So who else needs to hear this? From your friends, your co-workers, your colleagues, who else needs to learn to say no assertively and confidently, but without being aggressive and negative? Thank you so much for joining me here today for this episode, all about saying no assertively, and I look forward to seeing you next time on Cultural Communication Confidence.

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