Do you feel a sense of guilt whenever you have to say no to someone? Do you worry you’ve upset them? Or, worse yet, do you just say yes so that you don’t upset them?

This topic is a really common theme that comes up with my coaching clients, but also in my previous role within the People and Culture space.  The ability to say NO without feeling guilty afterwards.

So many of us struggle with this. Why?

Because we don’t want to disappoint. We don’t want to let people down. We don’t want to upset people.

We especially don’t want them to then not come to us again or to not like us anymore, because we NEED to be liked. And, we like to be needed.

But, what about when you really can’t help someone, OR when really don’t want to do something? Or, even more so, when you really shouldn’t have to.

Why, even when we are honouring ourselves and our own needs, do we still feel such a sense of guilt when saying NO to others?

Here is a little framework for you to try next time you want to say NO to something but you struggle to do it with confidence and without the feeling of guilt haunting you afterwards.

  • Start with what you ARE willing to do… For the people pleasers in us who panic at the thought of upsetting or letting people down, this one is perfect. You are starting the sentence with what you can do for someone, instead of what you can’t or won’t.
  • You actually need to say NO – Yes, you do actually have to say no to ensure that the other party understands that you cannot help them, that you won’t be attending, or that you are not free. You can put this into your own words, but it must be clear enough for the other party to understand you are saying NO.
  • Explain the reason why - Give a reason why. Perhaps it is that you are already under the pump at work with your own workload and deadlines, and therefore cannot drop everything to help someone else with theirs. Or, perhaps you are not interested in going to the football, but you do still want to catch up with your friend. Explain the reasoning.
  • Remind the person again what you ARE willing to do. Now, let’s circle back to point one and remind the person asking for something once again of what you ARE prepared to offer or do. This will leave the conversation in a good place and with you holding your boundary, but still being flexible.

If you’re sitting there sweating at the thought of having this kind of conversation, don’t panic just yet. Here are a few examples so you can see how it plays out.

#1 Let’s pretend a peer at work has asked you to do something for them at really short notice, but you are already swamped with your own workload.

Colleague:Hey Joan, would you be able to help me this arvo with this report? I know you’ve shown me before, but I just can’t quite remember how to do it”.

You: “Hey Sally, I would be able to help you with this tomorrow afternoon at 2pm, but I can’t help you today. I am currently under the pump big time with end of month deadlines.  Let me know though if you still need a hand tomorrow and I’d be happy to help”.

#2 Now, what about an example in your personal life where someone asks you to do something that you simply don’t want to do.

I know, shocking right – not doing something simply because we don’t want to ***gasps from the crowd***

Friend: “Hey Susie, I’m heading to the art gallery in Carlton tomorrow arvo, you should come with, it would be great to catch up.”

You: “Hey Fiona, I would be super keen to catch up for a coffee tomorrow morning if you are free, but I am not really keen on heading to the art gallery today. Have the best time and let me know if you’re free tomorrow before the gallery and we can meet at Sunny side café.”

How do you feel now having seen this play out? It’s not too bad, right?

Using this framework to say no should not make you in any way feel guilty. Why? Because you are always giving an alternative.  You haven’t said no, never, you’ve just said no, not now or provided an alternative.

Most importantly, you've held your own boundary.

So often the guilt from saying NO to others is more about ourselves than it is them. In both of the examples above, it would be highly unlikely for either person to get upset with your response because the explanations are perfectly reasonable, AND in both situations, you’ve provided an alternative.

Yet, we tend to internalise and make assumptions about how we think people may respond to us standing our ground or holding up a boundary. We get nervous, or panic that we might upset someone instead of honouring our own needs and what is important to us.

If you are someone who has trouble with holding your boundary, and spends too much of your time worrying about what others think, make sure you are signed up to our blog where I share lots of tips and tricks on how you can honour your needs better. 

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