Why We Struggle to Say No
“Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.” (James 5:12)
As I write this, I have just said “no” to listening to my mother’s frustrations about a close family member. I told her it would be better for them to talk things out instead of using me as their confidante and getting ‘advice’ from me that could be irrelevant since I’m not there to verify facts and details.
There’s an important word here that helps me define my role in family dynamics—boundaries. “A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership . . . Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out,” writes author Henry Cloud.
When it comes to saying “no” well, it helps to revisit the idea of boundaries. In my case, I couldn’t take on what should be resolved between my mother and said family member. Doing so would mean I’d be taking on her responsibility, which would have crossed my boundary line. If I did that, they might end up getting used to avoiding difficult conversations and become unable to resolve future conflicts.
Even so, it was hard to say “no”. For one, I was saying “no” to someone who was older and had that position of authority in my life—after all, how many of us can easily say “no” to our mothers?
We find it hard to say “no” for a number of reasons, such as:
- We don’t want others to think poorly of us;
- We don’t want to create conflict or hurt someone;
- We don’t know our own limits
But if we don’t learn how to say “no” and establish our boundaries, we can easily end up hurting ourselves and others who might be involved.
Is there something you might need to say “no” to today? Perhaps it’s to turn down an invitation to serve in one ministry over another, or to end a relationship that isn’t going anywhere. Or perhaps, it’s to rebuff an unhealthy or unreasonable request from someone who’s older and has authority over you.
Keeping in mind these tricky situations and the reasons that hold us back, here are a few things we can consider to help us say “no” better:
1. Know your limits and priorities
While He was on earth, Jesus didn’t heal every sick person or personally preach the Gospel to everyone. He worked with His human limits to focus on His mission—to save us by dying on the cross, and to call disciples who will take His message to the ends of the world.
If even Jesus worked with limits, we shouldn’t think that we can outdo Him. We only have so much time, resources, and energy to give to our work and to the people around us. And with different seasons of life, this may require reordering our priorities and reorganising our schedules.
Not everything good is equally important, so we need to recognise what should be our priority and allot more time and energy to attending to these. This helps us say “no”, without feeling guilty, to what may be good but not as important.
2. Be clear and respectful
As followers of Jesus, we are to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2-3). We are also taught that “love must be sincere”, and that we ought to honour one other (Romans 12:9-10).
So here are a few ways we can show respect while saying “no”:
- Choose an appropriate time and setting (e.g. call them aside or message them privately if it is a sensitive request)
- Thank them for their intention behind the request (e.g. “I appreciate your idea/intention for this, but I’m afraid I’m unable to commit/help you out”). Doing this can also help clarify that you are rejecting the request, not the person.
- Give them a chance to respond to what you’ve said, and acknowledge their reply to let them feel heard.
Sometimes, the other person will try to persuade you to reconsider, but if it’s already clear to you that saying “no” is the right thing to do, gently and firmly remind the other person of your reasons and intention for doing so.
Being vague (e.g. saying you’re not sure when actually you are) or worse, “ghosting”, can be easy ways out, but they are neither clear nor respectful. Providing “open-ended” responses (e.g. “I’ll get back to you when I’m free”) that you have no intention of following through would be dishonest, and can give the other person false hope, which is not a respectful and loving thing to do.
3. Don’t give in to fear
There are many subtle reasons that make us fearful of saying “no”. It can be as simple as the fear of missing out—especially in a group setting where everyone else says “yes”.
Or it can be as difficult as having to turn down an authoritative figure in our lives (e.g. parents, bosses), especially when saying “no” might appear disrespectful, and may result in us falling out of favour with them.
Yet remember that we are all different people, with different priorities and capacities. Before responding, we can take some time to think about how to state our roles, responsibilities, and schedules respectfully. We can also practise saying our “no” in a clear yet apologetic tone, to show that we still respect them even when we cannot cater to their request.
It can be tempting to say “yes” simply because we’re afraid of disappointing someone, or coming across as rude or mean. But when we say yes unwillingly, we are being dishonest to ourselves and to the other person.
I remember having to reject a guy’s invitation for another date when I knew that our dating wasn’t going to lead toward marriage. To do this, I had to make it clear what I wanted in a marriage partner and to articulate why it was better for us to not continue seeing one another so we could avoid wasting each other’s time.
Having a clear sense of what we want and what’s important can help us affirm our boundaries and learn to say “no” well.
At the same time, we also need to accept that a rejection can lead to the other person withdrawing from us. But if we have respectfully said “no” for the right reasons, then we need not feel guilty about it. Instead, we can learn to be gracious in giving the other person space and time to come to terms with our rejection.
4. Seek counsel when unsure
If you’re unsure of what to do or worried that your response might hurt someone, it could also be helpful to run your situation and response by a trusted friend or mentor. This will help ensure you have properly assessed your situation and understand how the rejection might sound to your intended listener.
I remember joining a good companion of mine on her date to help her “assess” the guy she had been seeing. After the date, we confirmed our similar sentiments that this guy was not a suitable fit for her. She then ran her rejection speech by me to help ensure that things were worded respectfully and clearly before she met up with the guy again to officially end things.
As we are called to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), let’s help one another make wise decisions, rejecting or accepting where necessary and appropriate. Together, we can remind each other to take everything to God in prayer, knowing that He hears us and will act in the best way for all parties. This frees us from self-reliance and leads us to experience His peace that will guard our hearts and minds (Philippians 4:6-7).
It can be difficult to say “no”, but let’s be encouraged that this can be done lovingly and wisely, in a way that preserves the relationships important to us and frees us from unhelpful events and expectations. Let us continually seek to be honest and caring in our responses toward all, and so reflect God’s love.
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