How to say No with Confidence

Do you have problems saying no when you want to? Well, I’ve written this page to help you out. After more than twenty years writing about the topic of self esteem and confidence, becoming a published author and helping so many through teaching and life coaching, I will show you how to say no with confidence when you need to.

Assertiveness is important if you want to build your self esteem. Knowing how to say no effectively when it is necessary is a very helpful skill.

Learning how to say no with confidence is good for mental health, as this study in 2010 found. The study concluded that the problem of saying no was equally difficult for men and women. Generally men are thought to be more assertive than women. This study didn’t agree with that assumption.

Why is saying no so important?

Assertiveness is helpful, and even necessary, in many different areas of life. Being able to say no when you need to is a very beneficial skill to have in your personal toolbox, so it is well worth developing it. But why is it so important to be more assertive?

As we get older we learn how to behave in challenging situations from others and from our own experience, so it is no surprise to see that everyone behaves in their own unique way. If you learn to behave passively, your self esteem and confidence may suffer and your ability to express yourself becomes limited.

Passive or unassertive behaviour is negative because it means you do not express your feelings and emotions. Others may take advantage of you as you do not speak up. Passive behaviour can limit promotion at work, success in academic study and can result in poor relationships. It will affect your communication and social interaction with others.

Assertive behaviour should not be confused with aggressive behaviour.

In business and personal life saying no is a very necessary skill. It is impossible to please everybody and if you always say yes you’ll find that people will give you more and more to do and you won’t be able to attend to what you need to.

It’s really important to know how to say no. Do you feel you always have to say yes, especially at work or in the family? How do you feel about saying no? If you have a problem with this you may feel guilty if, for example, a child asks you to do something. You think you should go out of your way in order to do what your child is asking of you. If you don’t, you feel like a bad mother or a bad father. This is completely wrong because as a parent you need time to yourself and you also have other responsibilities which may be just as important.

At work also, saying no is a vital part of business life. It’s too easy to try to please others all the time. It’s so vital that if you don’t learn how to say no you’re soon going to become swamped with other people’s requests for your time. If you let this continue others may take advantage of you and you’ll find it more difficult to concentrate on your job because they will expect you to continue doing jobs for them. Don’t fall into this trap!

Why do some people have difficulty being assertive?

Research by Fiedler and Beach (1976) into reasons why some people are unassertive, and how they might be trained to change their behaviour suggests a couple of causes. One is that some communication skills may be lacking. However, the main reason found was that unassertive people fear the result of acting more assertively.

Photo by Joshua Eckstein

Take this example, say you are pushing for promotion at work, you may fear that saying no will damage your prospects. You may try to keep your boss happy by trying even harder and to earn the reputation of getting things done by constantly saying yes. On the other hand, constantly saying yes can overload yourself with work commitments meaning you may get stressed and be unable to cope. This can damage your prospects.

Another example that those with low self esteem sometimes face is that you may feel you need to please others to be loved or respected by them. In this scenario, you will find it increasingly difficult to say no to others. When you build your self-esteem you will be better able to feel that you don’t have to do this in order to be loved or respected.

There are many benefits of saying no

Saying no is part of being more assertive. Saying no will not only help you feel more confident and in control, but will allow you to devote time for yourself and your own needs. If you cannot learn this skill then you’ll feel frustrated and stressed out.

While helping others is extremely gratifying, we must not get caught up trying to please others and neglect our own well being. This is a recipe for feelings of low self esteem because you will feel other people are not respecting you as a person and are taking advantage of you. You must put an end to this and learn to be more assertive. There are times when we have to say no, and we should not take this to mean that we are “letting others down”.

Why you shouldn’t feel guilty about saying no

You shouldn’t feel guilty about saying no.  It is right that you deserve to put your most important needs first. There will be times when you are swamped with work or household duties, or even when you are mentally worn out and need to take some time for yourself. There is nothing wrong with putting those needs before the needs of others. There is a time and place for everything and it is all about having a good balance.

No guilt
Photo by Fineas Gavre

If you are in the habit of saying yes to help or to please others you need to think again about the negative effects this might be having on you. Such negative effects include stress, burnout and tiredness and frustration that you can’t attend to your own needs.

Next time you are faced with a situation where you want to say no, explain to the other person why you cannot do it. They may be so used to you accepting that they may question you. Stick up for yourself and explain you have something else you need to do. Guilt shouldn’t come into it and you shouldn’t feel that you have to say yes.

Your need to say yes is likely based on seeking approval or on feeling good inside because you feel needed, but this shows that you have low self esteem and you should do something about that. You shouldn’t need to feel that you have to say yes to other’s demands in order to feel good about yourself.

When and how to say no with confidence

You should say no when:

  • What someone is asking you is not what you really want – tell them and be honest!
  • You haven’t got the time – explain you are busy with something else that matters to you, but be polite in doing so. If you use the right approach, they will understand.
  • The other person needs to do it. Explain carefully that it is not your responsibility or that they can do it better than you.
  • When it would benefit the other person to do the task because they will learn from it. Difficult to explain, but you necessary in order to help the other person.
  • What they ask is wrong or against your values. Don’t be afraid to be honest here! You owe it to yourself to defend your own views.

Saying no as above will help you build your self esteem because you are giving priority to the important things in your life and you are not letting others push you around. Successfully saying no once will give you the confidence to do this again when you need to. The respect you get from others when they see you are standing your ground will bring balance to your life and to your relationships.

On the topic of relationships always saying yes to a partner or friend can send them the message that they can rely on you to do anything for them. Without giving partners or friends necessary limits, they may lose respect for you and your time. This can even lead to an abusive relationship if this goes too far. So be sure to explain to those closest to you what your limits are.

OK, great but how do you say no assertively?

Assertiveness can be learnt (Williams 2000), that is great news! Saying no with confidence is a skill that you can develop and practice. But how?

Cloud and Townsend’s book, Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To …, claims that one of the most important words in the human language is NO. The reason they give is that by saying no you show others what your boundaries are. Having the courage and confidence to openly tell others what you cannot accept puts you in possible conflict with others who may be close to you. This possibility may cause fear and this may stop you from saying no. But it is important to stand your ground.

One successful way to learn how to say no with confidence is to take some training in social skills that teach this skill. The art of saying no is described in this study as “asserting one’s rights” and is therefore described as a very positive skill that is needed. This important study tested two groups, one trying to improve their ability to say no in an assertive way. They found that practising role-plays designed to improve the communication skills necessary for saying no effectively were very successful.

The above study did find that developing the skill to say no assertively had lasting benefits for the participants as the results were assessed after several months.

The Language that you Use to Say No is Very Important

To send an assertive message when saying no so that others take you seriously and respect your “no” requires careful use of the correct language. It is all about balance, not too direct that it upsets someone close to you, and not too soft that they don’t take you seriously. So what kind of language should you use to say no confidently?

Firstly, language is not just words. The following are important for sending an assertive message:

  • Body Language
  • Tone of voice
  • Language

First, your body language should support your message. If you need a stern look or a serious look on your face, use it to show that what you are saying is serious. Make sure you stand tall and strike a confident pose, your words will be so much more effective. Did you know that approximately 70% of a message we communicate to others is given through body language?

Your tone of voice should reflect your level of seriousness, emphasize the important words and phrases or even repeat them. For example, raise your voice a little and stress certain words such as “My wishes are also important.” “You need to take responsibility for this yourself.”

Your language should include mainly positives rather than negatives, For example, “I am busy right now and have less time to help. You can do this, I’m sure of it, let me know how it goes. You have my full support.” rather than “I can’t help you because I am busy. Don’t bother me all the time with your problems.” A big difference, right?


  • Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (2017). Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life. Zondervan.
  • Fiedler, D., & Beach, L. R. (1978). On the decision to be assertive. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology46(3), 537.
  • Pourjali, F. and Zarnaghash, M. (2010). Relationships between assertiveness and the power of saying no with mental health among undergraduate student. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, Volume 9, Pages 137-141, ISSN 1877-0428,
  • Probst, T., Geib, C., Güroff, E., & Mühlberger, A. (2017). Training the social skill “being able to demand” vs. training the social skill “being able to say no”. A randomized controlled trial with healthy individuals. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry57, 1-5.
  • Williams, C. (2000). Being assertive. Dr CJ Williams and University of Leeds Innovations Ltd (ULIS).

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