Learning how to tell someone “no.”

When I was writing my new book Do Over, I had to tell a lot of people “no” so that I could focus on finishing it.

I hate telling people “no.” Telling people “yes” is a lot easier and makes them seem to like me. Granted, I don’t like me in those moments.

I get mad at me. Why did I say yes to something I know I don’t want to do, something that I don’t feel called to do, something that I agreed to simply because I didn’t want to disappoint someone?


One of the reasons is that I’m afraid that if I tell someone no they will be angry. They will be hurt. They will shame me into saying yes or will demand I justify my no to them. That’s happened to me often.

I’ve learned an interesting lesson about that though.

If you tell someone “no” and they react in anger, they just confirmed you made the right decision.

If you tell someone no and they try to shame you into a yes, they’ve just confirmed you made the right decision.

If you tell someone no and they berate you, they’ve just confirmed you are a genius.

Say yes when you’re supposed to. Help as many people as you can. Be honest with your answer.

But when someone gets upset at your “no,” thank them for the confirmation and move on.


  • David Mike
    Posted at 06:12h, 26 January Reply

    It can be overwhelming saying yes to everyone. Eventually you end up not having enough time to get your own stuff done. I feel like I need to say yes a lot of times and then I will have to go back and say no, or not right now. No one has gotten angry yet, most have been pretty gracious thank goodness. Maybe I am not saying no the right way!?

  • Leah Adams
    Posted at 07:18h, 26 January Reply

    Great post, Jon. One other thing I have learned about saying and appropriate ‘no’. I don’t have to always feel like I have to explain my ‘no’. NO is a complete sentence. It is often enough.

  • Matt Ham
    Posted at 07:19h, 26 January Reply

    I think we must be wise to caution against how this can cause us to devalue others in the process. Sometimes people need our ‘yes’ even when it’s not convenient for us or even when we don’t want to. It is likely that someone’s ‘yes’ to us was a catalyst for our success today. In the same way, they could need our ‘no’ as well.

    In short, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can always be justified.

    I think that their anger or attempt to guilt after our answer is likely rooted in their immaturity or lack of confidence. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we were right.

    I think your summation is key: “Help as many people as you can.”

    With that heart, we can’t go wrong.

    • Missie
      Posted at 08:16h, 26 January Reply

      Exactly. Other peoples emotions should never be the barometer of the correctness of our decisions.

      • Matthew Hurley
        Posted at 08:51h, 10 June Reply

        I think “never” might be too strong. You’re certainly right that other people’s emotions can be justified, even when they disagree with ours, and that their emotions are important.


        I think Jon is also correct in the idea that you probably didn’t need to involve yourself in the affairs of someone who is going to react immaturely. It’s important to note that Jon did NOT recommend trying out “no” and see how they react. If they are angry, then it was right! That’s not what he was saying. He was certainly talking about a decision you’ve ALREADY come to by good reasoning and with good justification. THEN don’t let someone else’s anger trick you into making a decision that you already know is a poor one.

  • Steve Tessler
    Posted at 07:59h, 26 January Reply

    When I made cakes and I’d tell people I couldn’t do it for whatever reason and some would be mad.

    Some would persist even after my no’s.

    It’s the people that actually took my work schedule and time into account that I said YES to.

    Great post! Great perspective!

  • Jessica Barrett
    Posted at 08:19h, 26 January Reply

    Brilliant. I’ve never thought of it like this. I’m the worst at saying yes when my brain screams no. Your post gives me a lot to think about.

  • Mandy @ This Girl's Life
    Posted at 08:21h, 26 January Reply

    Thank you! I needed this reminder today. πŸ™‚

  • Dona
    Posted at 08:28h, 26 January Reply

    YES….to this blog!!! πŸ™‚

  • LaDonna
    Posted at 10:18h, 26 January Reply

    This is SO me. It’s not even that I think that they will be angry. It’s because I’m such a pleaser! I drive myself crazy. Fortunately with age — and enough frustrating experiences — I’m slowly learning the word. By the way, can I borrow a couple of bucks ? πŸ˜€

  • John
    Posted at 11:26h, 26 January Reply

    One other point. Accepting a task that you should have said no to seldom culminates in your best work–sending sub-par work out into the world is never good.

  • Adam Martin
    Posted at 11:52h, 26 January Reply

    I love the saying if someone gets mad when you tell them no then you made the right decision.

    The question I have is how do you learn to deal with this in the beginning?

  • Regina M.
    Posted at 12:12h, 26 January Reply

    I just finished the study of Lisa TerKeurst’s “The Best Yes.” SO, SO TRUE!!!! We don’t say “no” because we’re so afraid of disappointing or angering, or SOMETHING, but then we’re angry with OURSELVES! Totally not worth it.

  • Scott
    Posted at 14:47h, 26 January Reply

    Totally agree. I go through the same emotions when I tell someone yes when I know that I should say no.

  • Judy Fisher
    Posted at 14:53h, 26 January Reply

    In my younger days, if you would have looked up the phrase “yes man” in the dictionary, you would have seen my picture… an image of someone overworked, underappreciated and supremely resentful. Your post is something I would have appreciated seeing long before the wrinkles and grey hair overtook me… and I’m only 34. (Just kidding).

    These are words of wisdom, and anyone entering the workplace should read this before setting the tone for themselves in any job.

    Good post.

  • Danielle
    Posted at 14:55h, 26 January Reply

    Agreed! Saying yes is actually way harder and a much bigger strain on your relationship with this person. Because… if you say yes when you really don’t want to, you may gradually fill up with resentment toward that person because you are spending time on this “thing” you don’t care about. Or… you half-ass this “thing” and then hate yourself for doing a crappy job. It’s a lose-lose when you say yes and don’t want to. Just my two cents!

  • Christopher Battles
    Posted at 16:30h, 26 January Reply

    Thank you Sir,
    I am reminded of when I first heard that when we say “no” to something we are saying “yes” to something else and the reverse of that.

  • Dan G
    Posted at 18:09h, 26 January Reply

    Simple and straightforward confirmation. Often I ask a team member if she asked Why? or another easy question when someone tries to quickly pass what they see as the hot potato. Ask a question before opening your hand to accept that hot potato. Often that leads to the person looking for someone else to pass it off or realizing the potato isn’t hot at all and simply setting it down.

  • Katie Allred
    Posted at 08:43h, 10 June Reply

    As a web designer this happens frequently for me. If you don’t book me soon and keep trying to negotiate, more than likely someone else will book me quicker then I’ll have to turn you down because my time is valuable and I refused to be overworked. That often leads to confusion/anger but honestly, I value my time more than money. I can make money, but I can’t make time.

  • Matthew Hurley
    Posted at 08:58h, 10 June Reply

    This is a useful perspective (with some qualifiers about those things you should do, but just don’t want to).

    The difficulty I have is in finding a way to say “no” without being a jerk. Sure, if I say “no” and you say “that’s too bad, but I’ll figure it out” there’s no problem. But if you respond with frustration or manipulation, or “why?” now I have to deal with that. Elijah Wood can say “my business is my own,” and the gatekeeper is all apologetic, but when I say “my reasons are my own,” it comes off as “SCRAM, ARMHOLE!” Which neither engenders confidence nor good will…

    Sometimes, it’s just a matter of knowing that there’s a dignified way of dealing with it. Any ideas?

  • Rill
    Posted at 10:01h, 10 June Reply

    This was extremely difficult for me to learn but I’ve been much happier and have honestly felt like I’ve been able to help more people when (at the very least) I don’t say yes and just say “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”

    So my advice to pin to Jon’s is: If you say YES all the time and have a lot of trouble jumping straight into saying NO then start out by saying “I’LL THINK ABOUT IT”. This gives you some breathing room to step back from the situation and give it a good once, twice, or thrice-over in your head.

  • Maureen Koehler
    Posted at 11:18h, 10 June Reply

    I’m a total Yes person too Jon! I need to learn how to say no more to make myself more happy and not feel so crazy. It’s going to take some practice for sure!

  • Monica
    Posted at 07:19h, 11 June Reply

    What is it in their anger that confirms that that NO was the correct response?

    • Nick
      Posted at 11:29h, 11 June Reply

      His point is that, if someone is going to get angry simply because you told them you couldn’t do something for them, they aren’t worthy of your help in the first place.

  • Katharina
    Posted at 09:46h, 11 June Reply

    Great! And so true! It encourages me, to be more honest with my “Yesses”.

  • Harriet
    Posted at 14:07h, 11 June Reply

    Sometimes the “askers” get so used to you saying “yes” that they don’t even approach and/or recruit others. The old workhorse syndrome. Why bother to ask anyone else when so and so (who may really be tired of always feeling used) will always agree to your request? Then when you want to say no to the asker you feel guilty, after all, you ALWAYS help. But if you always do whatever it is because they need you, or “there isn’t anyone else”, what happens is there ARE others who could help, but they don’t because you always do. Thus, saying “no” forces the askers to begin drawing from a pool they haven’t fished in yet. And it gives others a chance to either step up to the plate and share the load or the chance to commit themselves and find their own blessing from serving.

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