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Adaora Egwuonwu: The Art of Saying “NO”



The word “no” is a very difficult one for many people, but over time I’ve realized it’s one of the most important words to incorporate if we want to excel as individuals, and in leadership. Nothing demoralizes a person when more than when being told ‘no’. Some people see it as being rude or impolite, and may take offense to it; but truth be told, you are actually exercising self-care. Finding yourself is not primarily what you add to your life, but essentially what you take away.

I vividly recall when I went for a job interview in the NGO I currently volunteer for. Being my first, although prepared, I was quite nervous. On arrival, having observed the interviewer was a free-spirited guy who knew just how to break the ice, I felt a bit relaxed. Then, he asked me a a totally unexpected question: “If you are assigned a task you are unable to carry out, how would you reject it?” Oh my! That sounded like a tricky question I didn’t want to fall prey to. I felt very uneasy. I tried to be very cautious with my response in order not to be denied the position, especially because I had come in very energetic – with an “i-can-do-it-all” kind of attitude.

I don’t quite recall exact answer I gave since I kept beating about the bush. I will never forget his response. “Do not be afraid to say ‘No!’. It’s part of setting your priorities straight and taking care of yourself. Whatever task given to you that you find uncomfortable, you have the right let us know and to refuse it” Pheww!! Just like that? That didn’t go as bad as I thought. Easier said than done huh? but all the same I felt a sense of relief which was all I needed at that moment.

There are so many opportunities and of course, responsibilities which present themselves as we succeed in life. The key challenge here becomes prioritizing the many opportunities we are faced with. We often try to do this without saying “no” conclusively. We still want to keep our options open. Although, this may result in a lack of clarity and most of the time, overcommitment, we end up disappointing people, exhausting ourselves, or simply just failing. To prevent this mishap, we need to learn to say “no” gracefully but firmly; maintaining the relationship while making it clear that this is one path we’re choosing not to pursue.

According to my Communications lecturer, Mrs. Gaboury: the first step to reject a proposal is by buffering it.  That way you don’t sound too harsh, mean or straight forward to the other party. Here’s a sneak peek of one of my course works on how we were taught to write an indirect letter.

We truly appreciate your enthusiasm towards introducing new features to the improvement of the project at hand. It’s indeed our utmost priority to render good quality services to our high esteemed customer like you. I agree with you on the introduction of these recent features but as it stands; it’s not favorably possible to incorporate the new requirements as a result of the limited time-frame

In this scenario, you have indirectly passed your message across and that message is simply saying ‘NO’. I’d say it’s like an interpersonal skill that develops overtime although it feels very discomforting at first. Be clear of your vision. Does this request help me to further my goals? If it does, that is the only thing you want to say “YES” to.

There are no laid down rules to follow on how to say ‘no’, but here are some helpful tips and phrases I do apply when I find myself in situations like this:

Pay proper attention and ensure they know they are being heard. Make them understand you likewise know the importance of what they are asking you for. In response, you can say “I know how much this project really means to you and I really appreciate you asking me but I’m sorry I can’t”.

Weigh your options
This is a very crucial part. At this moment, you know the implication of saying ‘yes’. You shouldn’t give the person an answer because your options haven’t been evaluated. Therefore, it’s wrong to commit yourself. Use helpful phrases like:
• I’ll get back to you.
• I’m going to say no for now; I’ll do let you know if something changes.
• I’m sorry, but it’s not just possible for me at this time.
• You can choose not to get back to the person at all. Silence is a form of reply.

Offer an alternative
By doing this, the person knows you really want to help in as much as you can’t be fully involved. Use words like:
• I think I know someone who can handle this much better. Do you mind?
• No I can’t do that but this is what I am able to do.

Follow up
This totally depends on you if you feel the need to. You can say: “I’m just checking to know the status of the work done”

Do not defend your decisions
“No” does not require any justification or explanation. It’s a part of success. Remember, each time you say yes to someone, you are actually saying no to your priorities. I’ve been in positions where I almost felt like freaking out. “What part of the NO don’t you understand?” Some people are just a pain in the neck. Of course, we are humans. We will feel that way sometimes. Success in this light is based on the ability to manage the emotions that come up when we close a door or extinguish an option. Consider if it’s worth the try. If it’s going to deter you from your purpose and utmost priority, let it go.

I’ll wrap up by saying this “It takes valor to identify your breaking points and refuse to allow people or circumstances use them to force you say or do things you don’t believe”- Assegid Habtewold.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Antonio Guillem

Adaora Egwuonwu, is the Founder and Editor of Royaliving. She is a writer, lifestyle blogger and author of several inspirational articles. Her write-ups have been featured in some of the most Nigerian leading online magazines. She is also a contributor for The Praying Woman, a Christian Lifestyle Blog designed for women of all walks of life. Ada is a  strong, energetic young lady with educational and professional background in Economics, Project Management and Banking. She is currently based London Ontario, Canada and an ardent supporter of non-profit organizations that help fight against poverty, hunger, health challenges, sexual harassment or any form of abuse. Through writing, she aspires to create more positive impact the best way she can to the society and be a source of encouragement to youths and young adults on how to succeed in life if only they believe You can follow her on: Facebook: @royaliving Instagram: @r0yaliving Blog:


  1. Smallie

    July 28, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    I “embrace the Power of NO” as I call it. Since I started saying No, my life is a LOT more peaceful and drama-free. There is a certain freedom that comes with being honest about what you can’t/won’t do instead of letting obligations and expectations dictate your life. Saying “No” prevents resentment.

    • Grace E

      July 28, 2014 at 7:24 pm

      @smallie: LOVE THIS COMMENT!!!u couldn’t have said it any better..when I was younger, I felt bad saying No but now regardless of who you are, I have learnt to be reasonable in my expectations of myself and others and quite frankly; it feels really good to be able to say NO if need be and I appreciate & respect likewise from good friends

  2. meudje

    July 28, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    thank you, i just realised i have problems saying no to people, especially my beloved ones. And i use to end up super tied. thank you for the article because now i sure like try get out of this. THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

  3. Que

    July 28, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    BN where did the article like button go??…. I needed this article today…

  4. @edDREAMZ

    July 28, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Making sense post no doubt…..

  5. zoomzoomzoom

    July 28, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    I used to say yes to everyone needing help, until I realized that some people are just user-friendly (they take delight in using others). Learning to say No guarantees one’s peace of mind. Thanks for the nice article, it was a good read.

  6. Akpo 'Diddie Uyeh

    July 28, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks for the write-up.It was enlightening and I would stretch my “No” muscles henceforth

  7. chichi

    July 28, 2014 at 11:29 pm

    GUILTY!!!..Well, until 2-3months ago when i seriously talked to myself. lol..So this lovely article is a lil too late for me…Great reminder though. i used to have issues with the word No. I Didnt like saying it to ppl (and no im not a ppl pleaser). I didnt like hearing it especially when the person saying it doesnt back it up with a good enough reason..I am also someone who loves sharing and i figured i was probably choking ppl with it..
    Now, i totally respect ppls decisions oh. Infact, i expect nothing and im never disappointed…someone told me last week that i say No more now and i was like, “uhh, new me”!! However, i still say yes if i can afford to do something. Its not me to say no just for the sake of it (doesnt mean i dont have a brain)…And when it comes to sharing or giving of myself, i still do but i’m a lil more selective now. You cant let this crazy, selfish world change your personality…You just have to figure out those who are deserving and act accordingly..In as much as saying NO brings a measure of happiness, nothing beats GIVING if you can (be it your time, energy, resources). While saying No may save your life, amaze yourself and say yes more…
    Great article/reminder to help improve the work environment especially.

  8. jennietobbie

    July 29, 2014 at 12:54 am

    NO!! Most powerful word. I use it as often as needed and I make no apologies for it.


  9. Adaora Vivian Egwuonwu

    July 29, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    True talk chichi… Of course, i agree with you on giving when you can afford to. It’s more blessed to give than to receive. Be it time, energy or monetarily. The problem here is most people might not fully understand or see reasons with you on a day you are incapable of helping out. It’s not that we don’t want to but circumstances beyond our control wouldn’t enable us. That’s why we have to learn how to apply the word “no”. Not in a rude but polite and graceful manner still maintaining our relationship with them. This makes our lives less complicated, and a lot more easier.
    Thanks to everyone for your comments. This is indeed a great platform where we all can share our different ideas and most importantly, learn from each other.
    Remain blessed!!!

  10. maychinny

    July 30, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    thank you for this article. i used to find it difficult to say NO to pple especially friends.

  11. newbie

    August 1, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Wish I’d read this article 3 days ago… I wouldn’t have agreed to what I just did 2 days ago.

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