Let’s Talk About… No

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health; I’m Jeremy Godwin and every week I look at one aspect of better mental health and I share practical and straightforward advice that you can apply immediately to improve your wellbeing. 

Today I’m talking about saying no and I’m looking at how to be more confident in using the word when you need to — so get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…

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This podcast episode was originally released on 14 November, 2021.

Hello and welcome to Episode 105, and thanks so much for joining me!

This week I’m talking about the word ‘no’ (as in no I won’t do that!) and I’ll be covering what ‘no’ is (and what it isn’t), why saying no matters, and how to say no in a kind and fair way. So, let’s talk!

As I said at the end of last week’s episode, I feel like the word ‘no’ is the second-greatest word in the English language (in fact, in any language if correctly translated!), because being able to find the inner strength and self confidence necessary to say ‘no’ when you need to is a sign of self respect; but I also know how difficult it can be to say no. For me, having anxiety means that sometimes I worry about confrontation and if I’m not in a great headspace then I might wind up avoiding conversations or situations as a result; I just had that happen this week with a small family matter (nothing serious, don’t worry); I had been putting off making a decision and it was actually making me more anxious as a result, and after talking it through briefly with my therapist I just said ‘no’ to the thing I had been overthinking and… the response from the other person was, “yeah, no problems” and that was that! So my point is that often the most challenging part of saying no is actually all of the thought that can go into it before you even get around to saying the word, so we’re definitely going to be diving into that shortly! 

Two things I want to pick up on here about what I just said: first, I am very open about my own ups and downs with the stuff I talk about because I, just like you (I’m guessing), don’t have all of the answers and I don’t pretend to; I am still figuring out all this stuff every day, and as I posted on social media a few weeks back, “be wary of anyone who claims they have it all figured out; we’re all making this up as we go along…”. And the second bit I want to say is that I mentioned my opinion that ‘no’ is the second-greatest word ever; so, what’s the first? There are probably no surprises here when I tell you that it is the word ‘yes’! And there are a whole bunch of reasons why I think that, which I won’t go into this week because in next week’s episode I will be talking about the word ‘yes’ so we have plenty of time to discuss it then!

Alright, so let’s begin — as I usually do — with some definitions and let’s talk about…

What ‘no’ is (and what it isn’t)

And ‘no’ is one of the most commonly-used words in the world, which is probably due to the fact it’s one of the first words we learn to recognise as infants, and it’s used in multiple ways: to give a negative response to a question, to refuse a request, to express disagreement or to contradict, and many more. In short, the word ‘no’ is about declining something (and that’s the main definition I’m using for this episode).

Saying ‘no’ is a means of valuing your own needs, time and priorities. It is part of self respect (which I covered in Episode 96) and self worth (which I talked about in Episode 78), and it’s about recognising that there are only so many hours in the day and that you cannot physically (or emotionally) say ‘yes’ to every single request that is made of you, because if you do then you’ll likely find that you have little to no time left to do the things that you need and want to do. 

Let’s also talk about what ‘no’ isn’t. It isn’t an excuse to be completely selfish and to prioritise your needs at the expense of other people, and it isn’t a reason to be rude or toxic. When you choose to be kind and thoughtful in terms of how you say no, that is a very different story to just saying ‘no’ in an unkind and thoughtless way. Part of being human is being considerate of other people and contributing to the world in a positive way; in other words, it’s about having a healthy balance between what you need and what everyone needs (and I talked about finding balance back in Episode 49, by the way!). 

So with that in mind, let’s talk about…

Why saying no matters

And it matters because the alternative is to agree to everything that is asked of you, which will very likely see you doing things that you just don’t want to do. I’ve talked in previous episodes about the fact that I get a lot of requests each week from people wanting to be guests on my podcast. Now, aside from the fact that it annoys me when I get these emails or DMs (since if you actually listened to my show you would realise I don’t do interviews on it, so it tells me they have likely never bothered to listen), for me it’s also about wanting to be very clear when I respond about why I’m saying no (without being rude or unkind, although I will admit that sometimes I am tempted to say, “If you had listened to my show at all then you wouldn’t be asking this”). So my standard response is this (and I quote, because I have it set up as a template now): “Thanks for your email. Unfortunately Let’s Talk About Mental Health is not an interview show — each episode is a how-to session written and delivered by me. Best of luck with everything and thanks for thinking of me.”

So I guess you might be wondering why I bother to say so much? I do so because, for me, saying no without at least a small amount of context is rude and it’s just a basic courtesy to let them know why I’m refusing the request (but without needing to explain myself), and the reason I say that is that it usually shuts down 99% of follow-up requests (you’d be surprised how many “but what if…?” responses I used to get before I changed to this approach!). I still get the odd overly-pushy and borderline-obnoxious person (I just had one this week, who has now been moved to my blocked list) but, for the most part, that small moment to explain why I am saying no is an assertive way of ensuring that my intention is understood.

Because the thing about intention is that you might know why you’re doing or saying something, but other people do not (because they cannot read your mind), and so it’s then up to you to consider whether or not you want to be misunderstood; if you do, then don’t provide any context or explanation whatsoever… but if you would prefer to be understood, then providing a little context when you need to or want to say no can resolve the majority of misunderstandings. Having said that, not everybody is going to be OK with you saying ‘no’ to them, and that’s just a fact of life that you have to accept; you cannot please all of the people all of the time. If you say no with kindness and respect, and if that is not handled well by the other person, that’s about them and where they’re at; make it your goal to do no harm and be kind in all that you do (towards yourself and towards others), and if that causes conflict then there is little you can do to avoid that while still ensuring your needs are being met (and I talked about conflict back in Episode 88, which might be especially helpful if you find conflict uncomfortable).

This is also a bit of a control thing, in the sense that we might be trying to control what others think of us… but as I just discussed in my latest YouTube video, “Where to from here? Mental health after the pandemic” (which is linked in the episode description and transcript), you cannot control others no matter how hard you might try; sometimes, people aren’t going to be happy because they’re prioritising what they want rather than trying to meet you halfway, and as personal as that might feel you need to accept that it’s not about you — it’s about them and their choices. Do what you do with kindness and seek to do no harm, and then it’s up to others how they choose to respond.

Saying no might be difficult sometimes, but even if it’s awkward it is still necessary — because nobody is going to prioritise your needs for you. The good news is that saying no is a big part of improving your mental health, because it helps you to be more assertive.

And at this point you might be wondering, “Well, yes, but how do I do that when I’d rather just curl up into a ball?” and that’s a great question, because it means it’s time for me to get into the how-to part of this episode; so, let’s talk about…

How to say no in a kind and fair way

Alright, so there is a finesse to the art of saying ‘no’ in a kind, fair and respectful way, and the biggest piece here is do not just jump in head-first if you want to maintain good relationships or avoid confrontation (or both). I talk a lot in this show about being thoughtful and considered in your choices, and although that doesn’t mean taking days or weeks to make a decision or deliver a response (because that comes with its own problems), it also doesn’t mean agreeing to or declining requests without first taking the time to think things through (even if that’s just a few minutes). For example, at the moment I have a dispute with a provider where the agreed service was not delivered (and frankly it’s been a total mess to deal with and they stopped replying to my emails weeks ago) and now that I have escalated the issue with a third party, suddenly the provider has come back trying to negotiate with me; my instinctive response is to make a rather specific suggestion about which part of their body they could insert their negotiation into, however I’m going to give myself a bit of time before I decide on the best way to respond. Which is actually my next point…

Reaction versus response — again, this is something I discuss a lot, and the thing with saying no is that it can often be tied up in a whole bunch of emotional stuff; we don’t want to be perceived as being rude or inconsiderate, or we don’t want to let people down, or whatever, and there are often lots of emotions tied up in the immediate reaction we have. So instead of letting your emotions drive the decisions that you make, instead pause for a while and let your emotions simmer down so that you can make more rational and thoughtful decisions about how to respond. I sometimes even go so far as to stick an email in a holding folder (so I’m not seeing it every time I go into my inbox) and then come back to it the next day, or I might reply to a message and let the person know I need some time to consider the request. It’s OK to take the time you need to make decisions that are in the best interests of everyone involved. And speaking of that, my next point is…

Be clear with yourself on your boundaries — and you could also insert the word ‘needs’ here, since boundaries are a means of ensuring that your needs are met (which I discussed back in Episode 53 of the podcast, plus I’ve done a couple of videos about boundaries over on my YouTube channel, Better Mental Health, and that’s linked in the episode description). Know what you need and consider what you will and will not compromise on; for example, I’ve recently been changing my work schedule to reduce the number of days I’m available for one-on-one clients in order to better manage my work/life balance, and so that has had to involve some direct and assertive conversations about when I am willing to do sessions versus when I am not; sometimes, you just have to say no if it’s going to have a detrimental effect on your wellbeing (and I often encourage you to make your mental health your number one priority, and today is no different because I’m recommending it again!). Which leads to my next point… 

Be direct and assertive — and assertiveness is a regular theme here on Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and I covered it in Episode 45) and it’s about being firm-but-fair; in other words, being confident in your choices and actions without going so far as to be rude or unkind. For example, if someone repeatedly bombards you with emails pushing a request to be on your podcast after you’ve already said ‘no’, there are a few ways to deal with that. The passive response is to give in to their demands; the aggressive response is to get into an argument with them; whereas the assertive response is one that states your position in no uncertain terms (like the one I just sent the other day that said, “To be crystal-clear, I do not accept unsolicited requests… I made that clear in my previous emails, and there is a clear line between ‘determined’ and ‘pushy’ which you have now crossed… No means no; kindly remove me from your list of contacts.”). Yes, I’m aware that’s pretty blunt, and no, I’m not apologising for that, because that was the third email (and in hindsight, I should have shut that situation down sooner). Anyway, enough of my oversharing, here’s the point I’m trying to make: some people will always try to push their agenda over yours, and you are absolutely within your rights to set and maintain your own limits on things… and also not to put up with crap! (And just as a side note, this is why I unsubscribe from mailing lists if I find myself being bombarded with daily sales spiels; does anybody else find that annoying or is it just me? And does it actually work? Because I can’t imagine many people go, “Oh wow, you sent me 85 emails about your exclusive offer in the space of three weeks, now I just have to say yes!”)… alright, alright, I digress; let’s move on…

So now I’m moving on to skills and approaches that you can apply during the actual conversation with someone (whether verbal or written) and the first point here is…

Be clear — and that means ensuring that the message is delivered in a straightforward way that cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood, or is not wishy-washy. Statements like “I’m not sure” or “I’ll have to see what I have on” or “maybe” are usually just things we say when we want to say no but we’re trying to avoid confrontation; all that does is make the situation worse. For example, if you’re dating and it’s not working out with someone, tell them; don’t beat around the bush or ghost them (in fact, don’t ghost anyone — it’s unkind), but instead take a moment to say, “I wish you all the best in the future however this isn’t working for me so I’m going to leave things here.” It saves you from running into that person in the supermarket and having to hide behind the fruit stand because you just stopped returning their calls and messages! Being clear is about doing just that: being clear that you are saying no. And that leads to my next point…

Explain why without justifying yourself — OK, as I said before I do recommend that you briefly provide some context around your decision to say no (just like I did in the example about dating that I just gave) because that is about being respectful of the other person and also looking after the relationship. For example, maybe you’ve been asked to go to a catch-up at a bar with a group of friends this weekend but you’re taking a break from alcohol and would rather not put yourself in that position; say that, and let them know that you’re up for other events if and when the time (and venue) is right. If the other person doesn’t understand or puts pressure on you, then be clear that no means no (and also if they do keep on pressuring you or if they attack or judge you, doesn’t that just tell you that they see their wants and needs as being more important than yours? Not going to be dramatic here, but I have ended friendships over stuff like this where it’s happened on a repeated basis… just saying!). Let’s be clear here that you do not owe anyone an explanation and you do not have to justify your decision; you get to decide what is right for you and what isn’t, and if you do that with kindness then it’s nobody else’s business. And, while I do think there is a kindness component involved with explaining why you’re saying no, I also want to take this thought in a slightly different direction with my next point, which is…

Know that sometimes ‘no’ is a complete sentence — because it is, and this is especially the case with people who actively try to take advantage of you on a regular basis. There was a great post on Instagram a little while ago by the account Calm and I’ll link it in the transcript (https://www.instagram.com/p/CTudEc1skZB/?utm_medium=copy_link) which said this: “ask yourself whether saying ‘yes’ to others means saying ‘no’ to yourself… you don’t have to explain yourself”. A lot of the time we say yes to things because we don’t want to disappoint someone or upset them, but again if it’s done in a respectful way, then saying ‘no’ can be a healthy thing; if said with kindness, ‘no’ can lead to better relationships because it can prevent resentment and it allows us to be more authentic and honest. And that leads to my next point…

Be clear with others on your boundaries — and I mentioned boundaries a few points ago, in terms of you knowing what they are for you and keeping them in mind, but as I said back in Episode 53 you need to set and maintain your boundaries with others as well; a boundary is just an imaginary line unless it is enforced. So, communicate openly and honestly with others and if your boundaries aren’t being respected, address it.

OK, so now I’m going to give a few more rapid-fire bits of advice to consider in terms of saying no, starting with…

  • Be clear on your priorities — know what matters most to you and ensure that your priorities are covered before you even consider other requests; for example, if your family comes first then don’t let yourself be pushed into agreeing to work 70 hours a week! Next… 
  • Be wise about how you use your time — there are only 24 hours in the day (and some of those are needed for sleep) so you need to be mindful of how you use your time and what you agree to, especially since things will inevitably pop up that you cannot plan for; a good rule of thumb is this: work out your available time, halve it (so you have space to deal with the stuff you can never plan for) and compare that with what you need to get done, and then go from there when it comes to agreeing or disagreeing to other requests. OK, next…
  • Start small — if you’re playing a video game, you don’t just take on the final boss at the beginning of the game; you work your way up to it… and saying no is the same! Don’t try to go from zero to a hundred in one day, especially if this is a bit uncomfortable for you… instead, start small and build your way up to saying no (with kindness) more often. Next…
  • Practice makes perfect — because it will often feel uncomfortable the first time you try this stuff out, so keep practicing; another helpful tip is this: if you have to have a tough conversation with someone that involves saying no, do a practice run with a friend or colleague first so that you can get used to saying what needs to be said (because the first couple of times the words come out of your mouth it might feel weird or awkward, but it gets easier with practice). Next…
  • No apologies — because if you’re being kind and respectful, an apology is not necessary… so don’t apologise. Next…
  • All-in or nothing — there’s a thing I saw on Ali Abdaal’s YouTube channel (and I know he was quoting someone else but I forget who, oops!) where he said a decision should either be a “hell yeah!” or a “no”, meaning that you’re either really on board with it or, if you’re only mildly in agreement, then it’s a no… again, there’s only so much you can take on, and personally I’ve found this approach helps me to cut back on stuff that takes me away from what I’m really trying to achieve with my work.

And then one more point here is if you really struggle to say no then consider working with a professional — like a therapist, counsellor or coach (depending on your situation and needs), because they can help you to dig into what is going on and help you to address the root cause of the challenges you might be experiencing; finding it difficult or impossible to say no doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it just means that there’s some work to be done in terms of understanding why and addressing it.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to ‘no’ and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: You cannot please everyone, and even if you say yes to every single request that is made of you I can practically guarantee you that there will be someone who is still not satisfied and who wants even more. That’s just life, and instead of letting that eat away at you or make you worry about potential conflict, instead be clear on what your needs are — and your priorities — and make the choices that are right for you; if you do so with kindness and with a goal to do no harm (to others or to yourself), then you are on the right track.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Seth Godin, and it is:

“Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

Seth Godin

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about yes. Like I said earlier, I believe that ‘yes’ is the single greatest word of all time. Why? Because it opens up a world of options and possibilities, and it’s about taking chances and trying new things in order to grow as a human being. Of course, with this week’s topic about saying no in mind, saying yes does require you to be thoughtful and considered so that you’re not biting off more than you can chew… so that’s what I’m exploring next time. I’ll be talking about what ‘yes’ is (and what it isn’t), why saying yes matters, and how to say yes in a way that protects your needs and boundaries.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 21st of November, 2021. You’ll also find another brand-new episode of Better Mental Health landing on YouTube on Wednesday (so take a moment to subscribe to my channel using the link in the episode description) or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my free mailing list for my weekly newsletter (and my website is also linked in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on).

And, as always, find me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth where I post extra content daily.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

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Find more content at www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.

7 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About… No

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