5 Techniques to Say No (Polite, But Effective)

hand holds a sign politely saying "no"

Many people find it difficult to say “no” to others.

Be it because of a lack of assertiveness, fear of confrontations, passive communication styles or “too nice” personalities, outright refusing someone or someone’s requests can be challenging.

In this article you will learn how to say no to people in simple and effective ways.

hand holds a sign saying "thank you but no thank you"

Why You Need to Be Smart Saying “No”

Evolution isn’t stupid.

And if so many people find it challenging to reject others people and their request, there probably is a reason why.

And the reason is that, contrary to what many guides online say, rejecting others can cost you.

So in this article, we will learn how to:

  1. Empower yourself to reject others, because it’s a must to at least be comfortable in rejecting others
  2. Say “no” effectively, minimizing the costs on you and them
  3. Strategically decide when to say “no” and when to say “yes”

And we want to be able to do that in the most challenging scenarios: the unexpected requests.

Unexpected Requests: The Most Challenging

Any request can be challenging.

However, the most challenging requests are unexpected ones.
The ones that you are not prepared for.

Unexpected requests range from:

  • Colleague asks you on a date (see “how to say no to a date“)
  • A friend calls you asking to watch his dog while he’s away
  • Random folk knocks at your door asking for charitable donations
  • Random people in the street ask you for help

As is it’s often the case on TPM, we start with the mindsets first.

Mindsets To Say “No”

The most important step is always mental empowerment and self-development.

And the fundamental mindsets to say no to people are:

  1. “I can always say “no”: internalize this as your fundamental birthright
  2. I can take as long as I need to decide”: internalize this to allow yourself to appropriately ponder requests and opportunities, including what’s in it for you, without giving in to pushy folks
  3. “If they get offended, disappointed, or angry, it’s their problem, not mine”: internalize this to remove your sense of guilt for your “no”. Also important to protect yourself against those who will try to change your decision (manipulators, guilt-tripper, judge power moves, and aggressive people)

I also recommend you read:

Now let’s get to the techniques.

Simple Techniques To Say “No”

From most basic to more strategic:

1. “No As Default”: For Strangers & Learning

"just say no" carved on a tree trunk

In an old classic Italian movie, a father teaches his son how to be a Machiavellian.

He says:

You never say yes, remember that.
A “yes” shackles you, and a “no” frees you

If you struggle with too much naivete or exaggerated “niceness”, this is actually a good Machiavellian belief to internalize.

It doesn’t mean it’s always true or you always say “no” of course, but it’s true in a surprising number of cases.
And the dynamic of “getting mired in someone else’s problems” VS “remaining free” are also often true -especially when you’re dealing with strangers, ungrateful takers who never give back, or people who are always in trouble-.

This approach tends to be most effective with:

  1. Random askers you don’t even know because random people asking for stuff are rarely going to give you value.
    So 90% of the time saying “no” to strangers is the safest and best option.
  2. Beginners working on their power/dominance: if you’re very uncomfortable with strong “no”, then it may be good to force yourself to deliver strong “nos” just to get used to it, and grow comfortable with it.

Of course, keep in mind that as much as you can always say “no”, you can also always change your mind.
So after you say “no”, you’re still free to mull it over or observe from afar, and eventually go back and learn more.

1.2. “Uncommittal Inaction” As Default

You say:

You: I’m not sure how feel about that

And you say it while taking no action.

This is a subtle power move.
What this does is that it puts the onus on them to convince you and/or to provide more reasons why you should do anything.

Of course some of the “salesy” types will see your honest incertitude as an opportunity to insist, cajole, and “find a way in”.
If they get pushy, we recommend that you default to “no” until you have more time to think it over -or until you end the interaction and never see them again-.

Here’s what it looks like:

You: I’m not sure how I feel about that. I need more time to think about it

Then let them draw the conclusion that it’s a “no for now”.

If they insist:

You: Whenever I’m not sure, I don’t want to perform any action or commit to anything. I need more time to think about it

Then stick to your guns and “hold frame”, for example with the broken record technique.

This format is also good as a first baby step for those who need to work on their assertiveness.

1.3. “Not Now”, “Let Me Think” & Future Deferral As Default

John correctly says you can take time to think by simply saying:

  1. Let me think
  2. I’m thinking (and think on the spot)
  3. I’ll think about it and I’ll let you know

We called it “default deferral”, and it’s basically a “momentary no”.

Often, it may turn out to be a “no for good”, but you can sometimes still keep the door open and change your mind later.

Deferral doesn’t necessarily mean you “need to think about it”.
It can also mean that “you don’t feel like doing it right now“.

For example:

You: Thanks, it’s not something like I feel doing right now

Or:

You: Thanks, right now I prefer not to

Or simplest of them all:

You: Thanks, not now

2. “Thank You, I’m Good”: The Strategic Way of Refusing

On TPM we introduced the “high-power/high-warmth” approach to socialization.

And you can apply the same principle to say no to people, and reject any request.

For example:

You: Thanks, all good

Or:

You: Thank you, I’m good here

See?

It’s super simple, but it’s a big change.

The implied frame here is not that they were bothering, but that they were offering help.
So your rejection power-protects them and saves their face since they’re not framed as annoying takers, but as potential givers.
That increases warmth, better preserves social capital, and lowers the chances of making unnecessary enemies.

Or lower warmth and higher power:

You: Nah, thanks

This technique is similar to the “thank you for not doing X” approach to requests.
An approach that is both power protecting, higher warmth, and more collaborative. Albeit I couldn’t find any study on the effectiveness of this format, odds are good that it’s also more effective by avoiding rule-breaking out of “power-reaffirming” rebelliousness:

thank you for not smoking sign

Generally speaking, this approach to saying no to others is a fantastic way to “soften the blow of the rejection”, which makes it easier BOTH for the speaker, and for the receiver.

So, this approach is both a great starting point for less assertive folks, and socially effective.

Whenever you can use this approach, we recommend it as your default way of saying no to others.

3. Say Yes To Your Other Priorities (“Positive No”)

William Ury shared this great technique in The Power of a Positive No.

And, in simple terms, it works like this:

You say “yes” to something else, and (indirectly) reject their request to prioritize your “yes”.
With this approach, you may even not say “no” but instead just say that you’re too occupied with your priorities.

William Ury says that the process is about “uncovering your yeses” to empower your “nos”.

Generally speaking, this is a very good and effective approach.
So whenever you can eschew something with a “yes” to something else, go for it.

The only issue with Ury’s “uncover your yes” approach is that it feels like some deep soul-searching “yes” you need to uncover.
Something like life missions, dreams, or your true life priorities.

However, you won’t always be able to, say, deny a simple request with some big “yes”.
For example, you can’t deny a request to lend $10 because your life goal is to become an astronaut.

Enter the Machiavellian and perfunctory yeses:

Machiavellian Bent: Make Up Other Yeses

This technique can be an ethical grey area.

However, if it serves to preserve a relationship and/or save face for the person you’re refusing, it’s fair.

How does it work?

You simply make up a valid-sounding reason, a made-up “yes”, to justify your no.

For example, the Machiavellian father in our first example was annoyed that the school teachers were asking for charitable donations.
But instead of instructing his son to just say “no”, he tells him to say that their family is already donating to charity. That’s his “made-up yes” to maintain rapport and status with his “no”.
If you do it well, it may even improve relationships and status.
It’s like saying “thank you, I appreciate your idea and we’re a lot similar actually because we’re already doing the same as well”.

Another good example is the “imaginary boyfriend”:

Guy: May I have your number?
Girl: Yeah, if I were single, gladly. But I’m already seeing someone and I’m a faithful person (<—- not only she effectively deflects his proposal, but she also makes him value her more and gets to make a possible ally)

Albeit the imaginary boyfriend is not uncommon, I’m surprised that not more women go for it.

The “Yes To Your Antisocial Mode” Technique

man says no to friends to spend time alone

As we mentioned earlier, the original approach to “uncovering your yes” seems to look for something “deep”.

However, sometimes there’s really nothing deep to say “yes” to, but you may still want to say “no”.

And if you try to sound deep, it feels stilted and fake.
Plus, you’d be lying.
We don’t want that: it’s generally best to be as straight as possible, and close as possible to the truth.

After all, it’s still your right to say no, even if you’re sitting or leaning against a wall doing a big nothing.

So some simpler ways of using this technique are to embrace your “doing nothing important” and saying “yes” to your:

  • Chill time
  • Lone time
  • “Not wanting to be bothered” time

For example:

Him: can you please take our picture?
You: (shaking head) Sorry man, I’m really looking for some lone time

Or:

Him: I feel like a beer but there’s nobody, can you come out with me please?
You: I do want to catch up with you, but I can’t tonight. I’m really needing a break and rest with some lone time. But happy to do another time mate

As a matter of fact, add this to your mindsets:

  • “It’s my right to be out and out, and still not wanting to engage with any other person”

Higher-Strategy Techniques

All these techniques are solid.

And they work especially well for simple requests and for strangers and semi-strangers (random folks, salesreps, or random hustlers).

However, for more complex requests or for people who are closer to you, you may want to be a bit more strategic.

For example, you may want to:

  1. Avoid straight “nos” to prevent the loss of social capital or to prevent a reputation for an unfriendly neighbor, friend, or a grumpy player at work.
  2. Assess requests and requestors
  3. See if you can find a win-win solution
  4. See if you can find lower-cost alternatives
  5. Etc. Etc.

So our next techniques:

4. Ask More Questions: Make Them Invest & Gather Intel

wall with the 6 W questions

For example:

Him: Hi there, we’re working at your neighbor’s place and cut off his power. Can I charge a tool here?
You: hi, who are you, an employee doing the work?
Him: yeah, I work for the remodeling company, Jim hired us to change his flat’s layout
You: What kind of tool is it? Like a phone?
Him: It’s a circular saw
You: Hmm, sounds like a powerful machine. And for how long do you need to charge it?
Him: Maybe 2hours
(by now you start developing a better idea whether you can do it or not, plus, you get time to think)
You: So you’d leave it here and then come back in 2 hours to pick up?
Him: Yeah

Now you have enough information to decide whether it’s something you can, or cannot do.
And if you decide for a “no”, you can justify it:

You: OK. Look man, don’t wanna sound like a dick and I love my neighbor. If it was a small and quick thing, happy to help. But this morning I’ve got some meeting calls and don’t want to be rang while I’m in the middle of one.
But there’s the other next door neighbor, his name is Max, go there and I can even text him before you get there (<—- the “propose an alternative solution”. And BTW, it’s always good to have all your nexihbor’s contacts)

Then, to better preserve social capital with your neighbor, you can even contact him and explain why you had to say “no”, what you did to help, and say you hope it’s all good with his house repairs.

How much better is that than a “yes” that shackles you, or a “default no” that leaves everyone worse off?

The other advantage of asking questions is that it’s also higher power.
No matter whether you say “yes” or “no”, the sub-communication is that you’re the type of guy who goes to the bottom of things. Your “yeses” mean something, they’re not just low-power “too nice guy who can’t say no” type of “yeses”. And your “nos” are justified -there are reasons behind them-.
Plus, you make people invest more as they explain to you, so you also don’t lose power to random people who ask for stuff.

So I’d make this my go-to approach.

These are the steps:

  1. Preframe yourself as busy and your help as exceptional, so that you have a good reason to refuse if you refuse, and you get proper credit if you help
  2. Ask questions to decide whether you can help, or not
  3. Communicate your decision
    1. Offer a “why no” if you say no
    2. Offer alternatives if possible
    3. Wish them well

5. Tell Them to Tell You More: Switching The Power Tables

Similar to the above, but lower investment, and higher power.

It’s very good with strangers or in more business-like settings.

The trap many people fall into when they receive any request is that they put the onus of everything upon themselves -they need to decide, they need to be fast, and they’re in a double bind whether they say “yes” or “no”-.
Don’t fall for that trap because the onus is always on the asker, and they need to put in more effort and convince you.

If anyone proposes you something, it means there probably is something in it for them already.
So now it’s their task to explain what’s in it for you.

Similar to what Kevin originally suggests:

Colleague: Can you help me with the TBS report?
You: I got something on my plate already (<—- this is strategic. In case you want to say no, you already have a good justification to refuse. In case you say yes, you make sure your colleague properly values and appreciates your help) but tell me more about it

That puts them on the spot to sell you and convince you. And it makes it far easier for you to control the frame, let them down easily, or find alternative solutions.

Or:

Police officer: can you please step outside the vehicle for questioning?
You: I have some places to go actually. Is there a reason why I must comply?

Another honest and vulnerable, yet powerful option I like:

You: should this be a good thing for me?

That’s good direct exchange talk and correctly turns the power tables.
It correctly frames the interaction as them approaching you, and them wanting something from you. And because of that, they also must provide your “what’s in it for me”.
And if they don’t, they’re being takers. Which also makes it easier -and less costly- for you to say “no”.

If you want to sound more inclusive, you can even add “is this a good thing for me or for the world”.
However, you must be careful with this one because it opens the doors to more potential manipulation. Such as, the various solicitors can frame it as you helping some higher cause that “good people should care about”.

In Brief

  1. Take pressure off yourself: remind yourself “I can say no” and “it’s OK to think it over”. You can then put that pressure on them
  2. Pre-frame yourself as being busy and scarce, and your help exceptional and valuable (this is foundational, see Power University)
  3. Ask questions
  4. If you need time, say you’re thinking and/or that you will need more time on your own (especially good with pushy people)
  5. If you say “no” to a close person justify your no and provide alternatives
  6. If you say “no” to random folks, say “thank you, I’m good”

Get Power University for more “pro tips” to maintain power and control the frame.

This is a preview from Power University. Power University includes the mindsets, the best default responses, and the best techniques and strategies

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