The Art of No

May 1, 2023 | Blog, Business Basics, Wellbeing

By Lillie Brown

Does saying “yes” rule your life? If it does, you’re not alone—social psychologist Dr. Vanessa K. Bohns wrote in a 2016 research piece “many people agree to things—even things they would prefer not to do—simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no.’” It’s no secret that saying no is hard. For many of us, it feels awkward, we don’t want to disappoint people, and as social creatures who want to be accepted, we want to preserve our relationships and avoid being seen as difficult.

But here’s the thing—saying no is one of the highest forms of self-care we can engage in. It helps us manage our time and workload, avoid spreading ourselves too thin, and stay true to our vision for our practice and business.

To ease the discomfort of saying no, it’s useful to reframe your thinking and realise that saying no is an opportunity to say a full-bodied yes to create more space in your life. It means putting yourself first and prioritising the things you care about—downtime to rest and recharge, working on other areas of your business that will produce a higher return on investment or pursuing creative projects. Saying no is a crucial way to assert and maintain your boundaries.

Know your no. Many creative people are afflicted by “shiny object syndrome”, gravitating toward new and exciting things to the detriment of our goals. Guilty! Building a business and seeing the results we want requires persistence and focus. Identify what’s important to you, clarify your goals, and say no to the things that aren’t going to move the needle in your business.

Get your body on board. What does your body say? When someone says no to a request you make, how does that feel in your body? When you say no to someone’s request, how does that feel in your body? Most of us will feel tense, uneasy, and downright uncomfortable when we hear or say the dreaded ‘no’. Many experts agree that a large proportion of communication is nonverbal, and displaying assertive body language will help increase your confidence and ensure your ‘no’ is received clearly. Stand up straight, maintain eye contact, and speak in a clear and steady cadence.

Muster up your courage. If you’re used to saying yes left, right, and centre, it will take courage to say no. You might feel like a bad friend. You might feel guilty for letting someone down. You might worry that opportunities won’t come your way ever again. It’s normal to feel this way, but take a deep breath, rally your courage, and put your needs first.

Practice saying no. You need to train your ‘no’ muscle. When a waiter offers you dessert, say no. When a cashier asks if you want to buy a $5 tote bag with purchase, say no. Stand in front of the mirror, look yourself in the eyes, and say no ten times over. It might sound a little silly, but it will help build your confidence, I promise!

Get ready to say no. There’s a simple formula to keep in your back pocket to make saying no a little easier. It goes like this: positive response + politely decline + offer an alternative. When you receive a request that you want to turn down, lead with gratitude. Thank the person for the request or opportunity, then politely yet firmly decline. To help maintain a positive relationship with the person who has made the request, you might like to offer an alternative instead—this could be negotiating a different timeline or referring them to someone who would be a good fit for the job. If the person making the request insists, reiterate your decision and make it clear that you’re not going to change your mind. You might like to say something like “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I’ve already decided this opportunity is not right for me.”

As a small business owner, your time is your most valuable asset and it deserves protection. When you say “no”, you’re saying “yes” to something else that is meaningful to you—and that sounds pretty bloody brilliant to me!


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