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How to Say “No” When You Need To.

I’ve counseled a number of newer clients lately who are getting overwhelmed at home and work because they don’t know how to say “no” very easily.  It’s usually people who are high on the Agreeableness personality trait that have the hardest time saying no.  In other words they say “Yes” when they need to say “no” to things like taking on extra tasks and home and work.  They often end up being quietly resentful to those around them who seem to be taking unfair advantage of their generosity and good nature.

It’s hard for some people to say “No” because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, don’t like to make waves, or don’t like conflict.  In turn, the people who end up asking them to do things for them often don’t realize they are putting them in an imposition.  Other times, it may be a boss who makes you their go-to person for extra work because they know other people will make a fuss, but you won’t.  You end up with the crappy jobs that no one else wants.

Another situation where some people have trouble saying “no “is when it’s time to register a complaint with a spouse.  You may not want to cause tension or hurt their feelings so you keep your feelings bottled up instead of hashing them out.  Some people have a family history of avoiding conflict because of the dynamics of their family of origin.  I was definitely this way myself, so as a young man I avoided confrontations of even the smallest kind rather than pushing back and advocating for myself. I had to learn how to get comfortable with what felt like conflict.  The problem was, as an agreeable person who prefers harmony in relationships, how could I let people know I was irritated or hurt by their words or actions.  I had to try some things out and see what worked.  

I developed a few strategies that may help you. For me, properly “couching” things was the first step.  I wanted to bring up my concerns in as diplomatic a way as possible.  So one of my strategies is this:  When someone does something that I find myself hurt or offended by and need to talk about it, I start by saying, “There’s been something on my mind that happened between us and I realized I’ve been irritated about it and it doesn’t seem fair to you for me to be mad about something that I don’t even talk to you about.  Do you mind if I tell you what’s been bothering me?”  This usually goes pretty well.  Remember, it’s not really that the other person can’t handle the conflict; I’m dealing with my own discomfort of bringing something up.  This wording works to make me feel like I’m being diplomatic about it and easing into it gently, which makes it easier to bring up.

This approach also works well in work situations.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and under appreciated at work, you might have a conversation with your boss starting with, “I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with my work tasks lately and feel like I’m not doing the quality of work that I usually do.  I’m worried my attitude might be getting difficult and I don’t want it to affect the company or my department.  Can I talk to you about what’s been going on to see if you have some ideas I haven’t considered yet?”

This may sound absurd to people who are comfortable being direct and just telling people when they’re irritated but for those of you who struggle with it like I do, it can be a game changer.

Gary Watson is a Solution Focused Therapist in Grand Rapids Michigan.  He provides counseling for couples, teenagers, and adults.  He can help with anxiety, depression, stress, college and work stress, relationship problems, and more.  For more information, please visit the website at