Dear Maddi, I am having trouble saying no to people

How can I say no without upsetting people who rely on me?

Dear Maddi - 25 February 2019

Dear Maddi,

I am having trouble saying no to people, and because of that I'm overwhelmed with all the things I have to do. How can I say no without upsetting people who rely on me?

Signed, Pleaser

Dear Pleaser, it is obvious you care very much about the wellbeing of those who rely on you but you are feeling stretched by your commitments and it is time to start saying "no". So what can one do?

Along with being able to express uncomfortable feelings, stating one's opinion, or asking for help, "saying no" falls in the realm of assertive communication. Learning to communicate assertively is a learned skill and it is essential to both getting our needs met and to foster healthy relationships. So, if you need to brush up on the concept, or if this is your first time at it, this is the perfect opportunity to start.

Just one caveat before we begin…being assertive does not guarantee the other person will not be upset. They may very well be surprised, or even a little disappointed but this does not necessarily mean you did something wrong. On the contrary, it might actually mean you did something quite difficult (set a boundary) and you need to give people time to adjust. Sometimes, taking a few minutes to think about how the other person feels and conveying that in your message might actually give your relationship a better chance to work through the momentary upset of saying no. Remember, it is how you deal with conflict rather than whether you have conflict that matters for a long-term relationship.

So going back to the basic tenets of assertive communication…HOW you say no, rather than WHAT you say, is the most crucial aspect of communication so pay attention to your body language and start with a simple assertive script if you are new at the game. Here are a few suggestions:

Voice tone inflections: opt for a well-modulated voice tone that is convincing without being intimidating. • Eye contact: practice direct, but not continuous eye contact to show that you are sincere and that your message is directed to a specific person.

Facial expressions: adjust your facial expression to be consistent with the message being expressed, avoid laughing when conveying frustration, or overly angry facial gestures.

Body posture: face the person, stand or sit close to them while still respecting their personal space. A slightly lean forward might also be appropriate to convey interest and connection.


1. Feeling: I feel … (use "I" statements and describe the feeling)

2. Behaviour: when … (describe the behaviour you have observed)

3. Effect: because … (describe the specific effect of the behaviour on you)

4. Preference: I'd prefer … (describe what you would prefer)

Remember that saying "no" is a learned skills and we can't learn without practice so be patient with yourself. If you foresee the conversation to be a tough one, do not hesitate to reach out for support, the University of Alberta offers many diverse and helpful services. There is even a workshop on "How to Set Healthy Boundaries" coming up on March 8 from 1:00 - 2:30 pm in SUB 2-725. Click here for more information and to register!

Take good care of yourself Pleaser.


* Maddalena Genovese, is a Registered Psychologist for Counselling and Clinical Services and a recent addition to the Faculty of Science team.

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