How to say 'no' without sounding harsh

Learning when and how to say no is one of the hardest lessons, but also one of the most important.

But why is it so damn hard?!

It’s embedded into us as children that saying ‘no’ is a bad thing, that ‘no’ translates to you being difficult, or that you’re not wanting to help and be a team player.

Even when we know that this isn’t what it directly means, it’s still so uncomfortable to actually do now even as adults, right?

In business and in life, you face an almost constant flow of requests. Whether it be as simple as responding to a clients ‘urgent’ message after hours or making time for people who really don’t add value to your life.

Saying ‘yes’ to everything, big or small, is a fantastic way to burn out really quickly, which we touched on in a recent episode of Small Business Burnout - have a listen here.

Your time is your biggest asset but time is limited and there are a lot of demands on your time. How can you handle them all?


The word ‘no’ is such a powerful word, and yet it’s often absent from our vocabulary.

When we tell ourselves we’ll do something, we feel an obligation to follow through. So start using the word ‘no’ on the little things, even beginning this exercise with people who you’re comfortable with will help you with the momentum and confidence.

“Babe do you want noodles for dinner?” Instead of: “Oh if you want.. "

Try: "Nah I’m not feeling noodles, how about tacos?



Remember at school and the teachers used to say "Keep It Simple Stupid?"

Saying ‘no’ does not require you to go on, and on, and on!

You don't need to prove why you're saying ‘no’, or to produce an over compensating counter offer. Just say ‘no’.

It’s what you want, and there’s no need to provide an excuse!

Avoid using words like ‘but’ because they may sound like you’re making excuses.

Phrases like ‘no thanks’, ‘I would rather not’ or ‘I’m afraid I can’t’ are some examples of how to politely, but firmly, say ‘no’.

However, if it’s a request you genuinely would like to do but for whatever reason now isn’t a good time, you can say that and offer a solution.

For example, “I’d love to catch up with you, however (time they requested) doesn’t work for me, would next Thursday work for you?”


Unfortunately, there will be people who won’t respect your boundaries, and take your ‘no’ as a ‘maybe’ and will keep pushing on, throwing out all their tactics, to get you to commit and say ‘yes’.

Let’s not board the guilt trip train, it’s no one's dream destination.

Remember to be firm and don’t apologise or elaborate on the reason you're saying ‘no’, that just gives them more to play with to convince you otherwise.

If someone is continuing to try and persuade you once you’ve made yourself clear, that reflects more on their respect for you, and their perception of the value of your work and time, than who you are as a person.

They will eventually get tired and give up, and you’ve just set the standard of what you will tolerate.



One of the most difficult ‘no’s you’ll have to say will be to someone you love, especially if the relationship has been rocky in the past.

Circling back to what we mentioned at the start, about how as children ‘no’ was a bad word and what that translated to; we don’t want to let down the people we love, we don’t want to seem like we don’t care.

Knowing where your relationship stands and how it will be impacted from you saying ‘no’ is key.

However, if you’re unsure how to handle saying no to a loved one, this is a framework we recommend:

  1. Acknowledge the request (I know how much you love when the whole family gets together)

  2. Deliver the no (however we aren’t going to be able to make it)

  3. Solution (but we’re free next weekend if you would like to catch up then?)

  4. The lesson/responsibility. If you’re having to say no because of it being a last minute request or lack of organisation on their behalf, you can politely let them know (next time we would be able to make if we knew earlier in the week)


At the end of the day, you can't make others happy and please them all the time.

It's not going to make your life more fulfilling or happy – in fact it's going to drain your energy and resources until there's nothing left for yourself and your own life.

There’s a negative association with being selfish, but it doesn’t need to be that way. It can actually be a form of self care.

You’re seeing your time as valuable, even when you need to rest and recharge in order to move forward. After all your time is your commodity, you need to use it wisely and with the right people.

The bottom line

There are times where saying ‘yes’ will be beneficial for your business or your personal life, but there are also times when saying ‘no’ will reap a greater benefit. It’s not about saying no to others, but more about saying yes to yourself, your boundaries, your priorities and your well-being.

It’s common to feel guilt, but you shouldn’t. Sometimes we don’t know what we want and need until we start saying ‘no’ to others.

Saying ‘no’ is an art form, and it can be so hard and uncomfortable to do, so remember to start small, practise makes perfect, be unapologetic, don’t fall for the guilt trips and be selfish.

In Episode 7 of the Lexicon of Life Podcast, we cover a variety of topics along entrepreneurial and business ownership journeys, including the struggles of saying ‘no’!

Listen to the discussion on this all-too-common subject and follow on Apple & Spotify to get your weekly fix of small biz tips, life hacks, and some relatable-as-F stories.

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