When and How to Say No

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” – Paulo Coelho

When and How to Say No

By Andrea Novakowski

When Mike, a business consultant to nonprofits, arrived for our coaching session, I could see frustration written all over his face. I asked what was making him so upset.

“One of my clients keeps asking for more and more services, but he doesn’t want to compensate me for my work,” he replied. “I understand that he runs a nonprofit and cash is tight. And I want to keep him as a client. So I end up giving him my services at below-market rates – or even for free.”

Even though Mike believed that his client had a great company that offered a valuable product, he confessed he was growing more and more resentful about being put in a position where he felt devalued. He was very frustrated and he couldn’t see any way out of it.

“I just want to say no!” he burst out.

Mike didn’t know it, but this was a big step forward. So much of the time, people don’t even realize that saying no is an option.

After Mike’s revelation, our coaching discussion shifted to the skill of saying no. When is it time to say no? And how do you say it?

WHEN to say no.

Here are six signs that it might be time.

  1. Alarms go off in your head. When you think about the project, client, or task, you have a sense that something’s not quite right.
  1. You have a gut reaction. Butterflies in the gut often signal excitement and readiness for action. But a pain in the gut or some other larger discomfort can alert you that something’s off.
  1. Your heart closes. This is another part of your body to check. If you’re heart isn’t in the project, is it really worth doing?
  1. The project doesn’t align with your values. Holding up the work against your values can quickly explain why those telltale signs are popping up in your head and elsewhere.
  1. Your plate is full. If you don’t have space in your calendar to take on more work, it’s hard to argue with that. You can either say no to this work, or no to something else.
  1. You aren’t a good fit. While it’s natural to want to help everyone, it’s best to focus on the type of project that taps into your strengths and skills.

HOW to say no.

Since Mike wasn’t used to saying no, we practiced some exercises to help him build his “no” muscle.

  1. Wait a day to respond. In today’s 24/7 world, you might think you have to respond immediately to everything, but you don’t. Acknowledge the request, and then hit the “pause” button by asking for some time to think about it. Take that time to listen to your inner guidance and/or run the proposal by a trusted colleague or advisor.
  1. Defer to someone else. Recommend a colleague who would excel at this project. It’s a win-win: you offer the client the best skills available, and you build relationships with your colleagues.
  1. Negotiate. You may not be able to give the client exactly what they’re asking for, but you can provide some level of service. Ask the client which part of their request is most important. Where is there room to move? How can you best add value to their project?
  1. Put yourself first. Get over your need to people-please and your desire for everyone to like you. What’s best for you at this time?
  1. Practice saying the word. Just getting comfortable with the word “no” in low-stress environments can do wonders for building this skill! Start by responding to small, low-risk requests. Would you like to go to a movie tonight? Would you like more coffee? If the answer isn’t yes, dare to say no and experience how it feels!
  1. Say no without saying no. There are ways to say no without using the actual word! You can say “I’m not available,” “I’m not taking clients,” or “My plate is full.”

At the end of our session, Mike no longer felt like his back was against the wall. He had options for handling requests from his clients and others, and he sensed his life had taken a positive, more expansive shift.


Do you tend to say “yes” when you’d rather say “no”? Do these two things:

  • Try to identify “when” this happens. Is there a sign listed above that you can use to help you see this coming?
  • Which “no” would be most comfortable for you? Identify your strategy ahead of time so that when it’s time to use it, you know what you want to say.
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