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Daragh Byrne
Daragh Byrne

Posted on • Originally published at

Why knowing how to say "no" is important, and how to do it

“We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’” - Warren Buffet

I'm naturally a people pleaser. There is part of my psychology that desperately wants to be liked by those around me. There’s a certain dopamine hit when I feel that I’m liked, which can be addictive.

It's not always a problem, nor do I see it as a flaw (like most personality traits, it can be useful or less useful at various points in time).

It has meant I've had to learn to say "no" effectively though. My desire to be liked has lead me in the past to say yes to things I'd rather have said no to, or agreed to actions that I wasn't entirely comfortable. I've been less effective and satisfied in my personal and professional lives as a result.

(This article was first published on

I've had to learn how to say no to friends, family and colleagues. The nature of the requests in each instance are quite different, but the techniques for drawing boundaries and saying know that I describe below can be used in

Here are several reasons why saying yes all the time is dangerous:

  • We become overwhelmed by taking too much on - our to-do list spirals;
  • We always feel like we are behind;
  • The quality of our work can suffer because of this feeling of overwhelm;
  • We can build resentment towards the people we say yes to;
  • We run the risk of disappointing those we said yes to when we fail to deliver due to being too busy;
  • We build unrealistic expectations of what can be expected of us, leading poeple to ask more and more of us;
  • Ultimately it can lead to exhaustion or burnout.

Photo by Mattia Ascenzo on Unsplash.

Over the years I've developed the skill of saying no through practice. And I've learned to appreciate and respect the "no" of others.

In fact I'd rather work with someone who knew how to set reasonable boundaries and expectations of what I could expect from them, rather than a "yes-person" who was always inaccurate about their true capacity.

Saying no is part of being mindful of how you use your time. It's a skill worth developing if you want to live life as a mindful developer.

Why we find it hard to say no

There are a number of different reasons why we find it hard to say no. Often they are based in fear or some other negative emotion. Here are some reasons I discovered in my own explorations - do you have any others?

One common reson it's hard to say no is that we feel inadequate. We carry some sense that we should be able to manage what is asked of us and that it reflects badly on us if we don't. Of course this is totally unreasonable. Everybody has limits, even the best performers in the world.

Another reason is that we are fearful of consequences. Perhaps we fear that a boss or a friend will take a negative or damaging action, or withdraw support or friendship if we say no. Of course, there are bare minimums of give and take in any relationship, but expectatoins have to be realistic, and capacity and boundaries have to be respected at all times.

If you continuously fear the responses of a person or workplace then you might be in a toxic situation, and it is worth considering whether that situation serves you any more.

Sometimes we find it hard to say no is that we fear the opinion of others. In this case we fear the consequences to our reputation. This can be related to the reason I mentioned at the start of the article (people pleasing/wanting to be liked).

Realisticaly, not everyone is going to like you in your life (I've had to do a lot of work to accept this and be ok with it, but it's true). So swallow your fear and say no!

We might not enjoy conflict. We can say yes to avoid an argument.

Finally, sometimes we are being manipulated. Someone is using social pressure ("everybody is doing it"), not telling the whole truth about a situation, flattery or other manipulation techniques to put pressure on you to do what they want.

This topic deserves an article in its own right, but it's a very valuable life skill to be able to spot when someone attempts to manipulate you and to remove yourself from the situation.

Ways to say "no" effectively

Here are a few methods you can use to start saying no effectively straight away.

Softening the no
This involves saying “no” without actually saying the word no. Use a phrase like, “I’d love to, but I don’t really have the capacity right now”. Or, "I can’t right now, but let’s check in in a couple of weeks”. This approach is very useful for social requests on your time that you don’t really want to engage with.

The calendar check
“Let me check my calendar” - similar to the above, it’s not a hard “no” and leaves scope to undertake the activity at a later date, but it’s effectively a no in the present moment.

Illustrate the impact on priorities
This is especially useful when responding to requests from seniors or managers who might not have the full context of your activities.

For example, a senior in your firm asks you to come to a business development meeting. It will take several hours out of your day, and jeaprodise the timely delivery of a feature in your sprint (which ends tomorrow). So you might say something like:

"I'd be happy to help, but if I do, I put feature delivery for my demo with Big Client tomorrow - perhaps we can have a conversation with Project Manager about that?"

This works because it makes the asker aware of facts that they might not have otherwise known. In this case they learn about the demo tomorrow, which might cause them to reconsider their request.

Suggest someone else
“I think Jamie would be good for that task, but check her capacity”.

The person asking often doesn’t really care who helps them, as long as they get help. Somebody else might be more interested, or better suited. The request to check the person’s capacity is respectful to that person.

Partial yes
This is useful when you are interested in supporting the person requesting time in a limited way. You offer partial help.

For example, you might say “I don’t have capacity to implement that feature, but I would be happy to review the code once it's done”.

Know your Yes

It’s easier to say no to things when you are super clear about your real priorities. Having an idea of the things that are valuable and meaningful to you makes it easier to spot things that are distractions or not part of your goals.

Practice makes perfect

Saying “no” is a skill and like most skills it gets better as you practice it. Start small - turn down some minor requests that you might normally say yes to (burdensome social events are a good place to start).

So, what are you going to say no to next?

Photo by Mattia Ascenzo on Unsplash. Cover image by Gemma Evans on Unsplash.

Top comments (6)

fdrobidoux profile image
Félix Dion-Robidoux • Edited

Believe it or not, but I learned to say "No" from working night shifts at a convenience store for 6 months.

Whenever it was past 11pm, I couldn't sell alcohol to anyone until 8am (because of our laws in Québec), so I had to say "No" to anyone who argued to buy some in that time range.

When they asked to "pay you later, I know your manager", I had to say "No" due to store policies.

When they asked for the restrooms, had to say "No, we don't allow customers in backroom toilets".

At first you might say "duh, no shit, you were paid to respond as such", but being the sheltered millenial I was, this really made me understand that you had to say "No" if things simply weren't possible, for your own good.

Really, I've found working night shifts at a shitty convenience store to be very reinforcing in my character, and helped me reflect on what I wanted to do with my life. To this day, it's the job that made me grow up the most. You don't get that from working at software dev startups, from what I experienced of startups I've been in.

codingmindfully profile image
Daragh Byrne

How awesome. I can relate. I grew up in Ireland and my family owned a bar, which I worked in during my teenage years. I had similar experiences with customers asking for drinks after hours, people being too drunk and so on. You certainly don't get that at startups!

ghost profile image

Good points but use with caution, specially with the "calendar check" I prefer that someone says not to me, then I know their answer. I my country, I don't know if is a cultural thing, nobody says no, always let me check, maybe; never no, so in your equations you have just a bunch of blurry half answers. Try to reuse a no not avoid it, a yes is a yes a no is a no. Said that, don't be a jerk about it. I find more useful a "no, but" and maybe suggest an alternative, or "not now" followed by a date not "in some murky future". Over the years and probably more because of my environment I appreciate clear concise answers. You mean no, well, say no, if you can think in an alternative, better. But if you can't let me just move on knowing that, now I know what my resources are instead os a dozen maybes that are most likely polites 'no' and I'll probably will find out too late.

codingmindfully profile image
Daragh Byrne

A fair point. There are certainly cultural considerations I've not addressed! Saying "no" clearly is the ultimate way to do it really! These techniques can help you get there if you are not already used to it.

Speaking with authenticity is crucial to being taken seriously in the long run. So use these techniques, but say what you mean!

saurabhdaware profile image
Saurabh Daware 🌻

Thank you for writing this article! loved it 🌻

codingmindfully profile image
Daragh Byrne

I'm glad to hear that! Check out my site, plenty more there :)