Just say no, carved on a tree

Learn to say No effectively

Having learned how to say No in a connecting way has helped me immensely in my relationships, both to myself and others.
In this article I want to look at the challenges around these two letters and ways to communicate them effectively.

Why is it so difficult to say No?


As social animals, we depend on being accepted by our social surrounding for our well-being.
From an evolutionary perspective, this was crucial for our survival.
Being kicked out of your tribe meant death for a long time in human existence.

Nowadays we’re in a different place.
But as this situation is quite fresh, I believe the above-mentioned fear is still deeply rooted in us. So we learn to do what’s socially acceptable instead of what feels true to us.

Culturally we haven’t learnt how to communicate honestly.
Politeness and courtesy have been way more important than authenticity.
So not having learnt how to say No freely puts a lot more weight on the rare occasions when a No is articulated.

Moving towards a culture of communication where a No is just as welcome as a Yes is not only important on a personal level.
It is something much needed in our society.
It’s firmly connected to human dignity. The right to say No to anything that feels harmful is something many minorities had to fight for and there are still many occasions where it is not yet established.


The roots in childhood


As children, we learn to act in a way that secures the love, care and attention by our parents or caretakers.
Depending on the strategies you discovered to be helpful in getting what you desperately needed, you developed a certain persona or mask.

So whenever you’re unsure of other peoples’ approval, you slip on that mask that you developed early on.
For one person, this might look like being very loud, entertaining and at the center of attention.
For another, it might be silently observing, not taking up too much space.

It’s important to acknowledge that these behaviors we all learnt in our childhood had a function. This was your creative way of dealing with challenges in your early years.
At some point they were crucial for us.
And they can still be of value .

A growing awareness of your masks is the way forwards.
To see when they actually fit the circumstances and when they are not serving you well.
To acknowledge that there is no single behavior that fits every social situation.
And to learn to listen to what feels good for you rather than what seems to be appropriate.


My mask


As a child I learnt to listen to peoples’ emotional state very attentively.
I learnt to make others feel comfortable to share themselves vulnerably in my presence.
This is a huge ressource and a great way to create deep connections.

On the other hand I realized that I also tend to take responsibility for how the other person is feeling in my presence.
If they are not well, I blame myself for not being good enough, for not taking care of them well enough.
My learning process in that is that I am not responsible for other peoples’ emotions.

I am slowly developing other ways of establishing a connection besides empathic listening.
In doing so, I have more freedom when interacting, knowing that to meet my need for connection, I don’t solely rely on the one strategy I developed early on.

Why a No feels so dangerous


If our relationship with our caretakers was in some way not secure (we didn’t trust their love was unconditional), receiving a No was perceived as something quite risky.
If as a child you felt scared to be abandoned by your caretakers in case you did something they didn’t agree with, it totally makes sense that you worked hard to avoid receiving a No.

So the difficulty we encounter with receiving a No is connected to everything additional we attribute to this No.
We take it as something much bigger than it is.
As it triggers this primal fear of abandonment, receiving a No feels like a general rejection of myself as a human being.



Why it’s important to learn how to say No


When a person I interact with says No to something I request, it often fills me with relief and gratitude.
That’s because there is a lot of value for me in relationships where I know the other person is capable of articulating a No.
Here are some of the reasons that’s so important for me:


Self-awareness It takes a certain level of self-awareness to be able to discern between having an internal Yes or a No to a request. Knowing how important it’s been for me to have that ability, I cherish seeing it others.
Self-worth If someone is willing to express a No, they value themselves enough to show themselves openly, even if that leads to a difficult situation. I find it very appealing to see that.
Respecting one’s boundaries If someone is comfortable saying No, it means they are actively listening to their boundaries.
This in turn means I don’t have to worry about their well-being as they are taking care of themselves.
I can be fully myself, knowing that if something is too much or uncomfortable, they will say so.
Trusting the Yes If I know that someone can express a No freely, their Yes becomes so much more powerful, as I can trust it to be a full Yes.
Freedom I feel comfortable expressing my truth if I know the person I interact with does the same.
It’s a huge relief to realize I am not the only one who cares about honest, self-connected communication.







What a No does NOT mean


  • I reject you as a human being
  • I want to distance myself from you
  • You did something wrong.
  • I will never be willing to say Yes to your request
  • You are unworthy of my attention

I am naming these as they were, and still are, part of the story in my mind.
Just becoming aware of all associations which come along in your mind that have very little to do with reality is so important.
It helps a lot to realize how many layers we add to reality based on childhood wounds.


What does a No actually mean?


In essence, a No means:
I am currently not willing to fulfil your request under set circumstances.

Anything else is not said and open for exploration.
Receiving a No can very well be the beginning of a very insightful discovery!
It might lead to a lot more clarity once you find out where the No is coming from.

I like the metaphor of looking at communication as a dance.
When there’s a No to a certain move, it doesn’t mean we have to stop dancing.
We can keep on exploring other ways of enjoying each others’ company.
And if we don’t find a way to dance that is enjoyable for both of us, it’s perfectly fine to leave the dance.


Dancing alone can be fun too!

Ultimately, a No from another person has nothing to do with you.
It does not say anything about your worthiness as a human being.
For whatever reason, the person you’re interacting with is not willing to fulfil your wish.
WHY that’s the case is much more related to their own story, their preferences and their emotional wounds.

Note that if you are not open to receiving a No, you’re demanding something rather than requesting.
That is what we do most of the time: we “ask” for something, but we expect the other person to say Yes anyway.
This way of communication can add pressure on the other person which in turn will more likely make them say No (or create a weird power dynamic).

Obviously we all prefer to hear a Yes over a No.
I’ve noticed that receiving a No to something I request – especially when it is expressed in a harsh way – creates an energetic shock in my body.
Still, the amount of energy we spend on avoiding it is way out of proportion to how it feels to receive a No.

I’ve actually taken on the practice of requesting things where I’d expect the other person to say No.
For example asking for a scalp massage (LOVE them!).
I learnt 3 important lessons:

  1. Receiving a No is really not that bad
  2. If I take the courage to ask, I receive a Yes more often than expected (meaning my assumptions are often wrong)
  3. Exploring what’s behind the No can create more connection


How to say No effectively


There are two elements to communicating No that make it a lot easier to digest.

  • A No is a response to a request in this very moment

I’m neither saying No to you as a human being nor is my No eternal.
It is simply my aliveness in this very moment.

  • Every No contains a Yes to something else

For example, if I don’t feel like hanging out with my friend tonight, it might be because I really want to rest and take care of myself.


So learning to make clear to the other person what I’m saying Yes to in my No


keeping the communication going (I don’t stop the conversation with my No) makes it a lot easier to receive the perceived rejection.


Moving on from a No


I can check to see what my friend was hoping to get from hanging out with me.
Maybe it was to meet their need for connection or they wanted to get my feedback on a project they really care about.

Once I know what the intention behind the request is, I can check with myself if I’m willing to support the other person in a different way that feels good for me too. I might agree on talking on the phone with my friend or finding time the next day.
Even if we don’t find a way to dance together, we had the oportunity to get to know each other and ourselves better through the exploration.

Sometimes it takes a bit of meandering to find a way

Need vs. strategy


Learning to differentiate clearly between a need I have and the strategy I use to meet that need is crucial to understand.

If I long for intimacy, I might believe I can only get this from one particular person in a particular way.
When that happens, I confuse the need with the strategy to meet that need.
I become dependent on that person, they have all the power over me as their will decides whether I get my need met or not.
Get creative! There are tons of ways you can meet your need for intimacy.

In the beginning it might feel awkward to use different strategies to meet a certain need.
But it also gives you such freedom!
You’re empowered to get creative and find new ways to meet your needs.

And here’s the connection to expressing and receiving a No:
The No is always a response to a strategy, NOT the need.
So if you’re willing to explore other strategies, the No cannot stop you.

About the Author David Lion

Hi, my name is David and I'm passionate about ​Personal ​Development, Men's work and creating community. Learn more about me here .

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