Master the art of saying NO

When it was bedtime in my household growing up, I used to put on the biggest battle to stay awake. My mother didn’t understand why for years until it clicked and she finally was able to motivate me to sleep without the challenge:

“You’re not going to miss out on anything.”

As someone who’s grown up still challenged with my innate FOMO (fear of missing out), I began to appreciate more of the unintentional consequences it would bring to my personal and professional life by trying to take every opportunity.

The way we are programmed socially often compounds this problem, especially for women, to be appeasing, agreeable, unconfrontational, and never by any means aggressive. In a way, this bias to ‘yes’ isn’t truly our decision.

Starting out as an entrepreneur, I had to take most of the opportunities I was given since there were far fewer to say no to. As my company, Safe & the City began to grow and the pressure of my time increase, it became a difficult transition away from simply FOMO. I had made friends with organisers of events, felt I had owed favours, wanted to have my voice included in important discussions with other interesting people, which continued to spew ‘yes’ from my mouth, sometimes ahead of my brain being able to process it.

This left me in many difficult situations, having to now prioritise one more thing to sacrifice another piece of work or commitment, walk the tight-rope of burnout by trying to be everything to everyone or find reasons why I had to say no after committing. The art of saying no, to me has not been mastered, but you can improve on it with a few of these methods to start.


  1. TAKE A PAUSE & BREATH: The social desirability bias goes both ways. So after being asked a ‘Yes or No’ question, pause for 3 seconds, take a breath to process the information before giving your yes or preferably no.

MASTER TIP: Remain silent until they continue with the ask or find another solution because you’ve clearly not leaped at the opportunity.

2. LET ME GET BACK TO YOU This is best used over email or text, but can be used in person. ‘Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” is neither a yes or a no so you can give yourself more time to weigh up whether this opportunity is the best use of your time.

3. SET STRUCTURAL BOUNDARIES: With many more questions being asked over email or text, you can also implement technological boundaries to also help you say no. Email bounce-backs with timeframes you will respond to people is one example. Having someone else, like an assistant to screen opportunities or find out more information. Set up a website with ways to get in touch with key answers that you’d need to make your decision (i.e. time, location, paid/unpaid).

4. STATE THE CONSEQUENCES: If your boss asks you to take on another project, which you cannot feasibly do on top of your current workload, but is difficult to say no to, then state the consequences objectively. If I take on this, this project will need to pause, for example.

5. HUMOUR: This comes with Mastery of the art of no, as with any form of comedy it has the potential to truly backfire. This technique is better used with friends and loved ones who you will have more experience of whether they like or dislike your sense of humour and therefore your ability to say no.

6. NO TO X, BUT CAN OFFER Y: Usually with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question you are only offered a limited view of the options or problem to solve. You may not be able to give someone a lift, but you could offer them your keys to your car (not recommended by me personally), or to find someone else to speak at the event who may fit a similar profile.

Over time this helped me slow down my yes’ and re-programmed my mind to have a bias towards saying ‘no.’

Have you mastered the art of saying no? Share your tips and stories with me.