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The Art of Saying No

There can be many reasons to say no to someone. You may be overworked or have too many commitments; you may be busy or, and this is valid too, you just might not want to do what someone is asking.

But a lot of people, especially those of younger generations, struggle to say “no”. For a word so small, the task of refusing someone can appear so daunting. Some avoid it because saying no can make us feel bad.  It might be that we put off refusing to do something so that we appear more reliable, and that by accepting more tasks, we increase career opportunities (think promotions, or gaining favours with a higher-up at work). As students, we might take on more than we can handle so that our CVs look more employable. This could mean that for a lot of us, the word “no” has left our vocabulary as we fight a for a chance to succeed in a decreasing job market.

The study of contemporary linguistics can point towards an explanation as to why younger people might be taking on more and more responsibilities. Tom Scott in his video on Phatic Expressions explains the generational gap and response to the phrase “thank you”. He indicates that the younger generations, like millennials and Gen Z respond to the phrase with “no problem”, whereas the older generations prefer to say “you’re welcome”. To the younger generations, this older phrase would perhaps seem impolite. The idea of taking on additional tasks or potentially going out of our way to help people is apparent in our speech patterns – helping people is perceived as non-strenuous or even expected of us. This can be detrimental to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, impeding our productivity and chance to succeed.

Without saying no, it is not unusual to feel overworked or constantly behind; once you feel like you’ve finished one task, there isn’t an opportunity to pause before beginning the next one. The time used for working more leaves less time for rest and recovery; especially with university being online this year, it can be difficult to “switch-off” effectively. It is easy to fall into this cycle, and not only can this lead to little-to-no rest, it could lead bingeing and bad mental and physical health habits.

A lot of us are aware of this, but in reality it can really be difficult to actually say no to people and take a step back. This may mean that saying no has become a skill we have to re-learn in order to become more successful. Here are some effective tips that can be implemented to take this step backwards.

Be Assertive (but polite)

Sometimes, just saying “no”, whilst perhaps a bit blunt can be the best solution. ‘Sorry, no’ or ‘I can’t’ are perfectly usable and acceptable phrases that perhaps should be used more often. Remember you don’t have to give a reason why, although in work or university settings it may be best to give a bit of context for your peers.

Prepare a Response 

Saying no can be difficult when we’re put on the spot. As a student, one way we can ensure we are not overworked is to timetable or to create a routine. By allocating slots for free time, study and work, it can be easier to see how it may (or may not) be possible to take on extra responsibilities. Once a set schedule is set in place, it can be easier to say no, and this is backed up by prior deliberation.

Feel-good Rejection 

Instead of just saying no, or perhaps wanting to say no but fumbling (and saying yes), you could say ‘That seems like a great opportunity, but unfortunately I can’t’ or ‘I’m not available for that, but thanks for thinking of me!’. This is a variation of the back-handed compliment, related to the letting-someone-down-softly.

Offer an Alternative

Leading on from the ‘feel-good rejection’ approach is to offer an alternative: in work you may be able to suggest one of your colleagues who is perhaps better suitable, or more openly available, for the task. By suggesting another option, you don’t explicitly say no, but you are also free from an extra commitment.

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