Therapists Explain How to Say No Without Hurting Someone’s Feelings

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Saying no can be hard for some people. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and you don’t want to appear as the bad guy. However, you know that you must utter that two letter word. It is a tough position to be in when you must say no.

Telling a person no without hurting them is possible. Occasionally, you may not be able to avoid the fallout, but in most cases, if you are dealing with a reasonable person, you can tell them no without any emotional damage. Please keep reading to find out suggestions from therapists on telling someone no without hurting their feelings.

Put Your Health First

The first thing you need to do is realize that sometimes you must tell people no for your own health. You cannot be a “yes” person all the time – being this way can be emotionally exhausting. You may want to please people but it’s just not logical to think you can please everyone.

Some people say yes because they feel guilty when they tell a person no. As psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., says, “…guilt is an emotion reserved for when you do something wrong.”

There is nothing wrong with telling a person no. It will help if you let go of any guilty feelings or any fear of disappointment. Put yourself first or else you may end up stressed out because you are doing things you really don’t want to do.

Telling people no or disagreeing with them sometimes is essential to your mental health. Being a yes person can:

Lower your value in other’s eyes as well as your own
Cause you to miss out on things meant for you
Make you seem disingenuous.
Inevitably experience burnout
Have problems with interpersonal relationships
Lead to poor decision making

These are only a few consequences of being a yes person. Dr. Sheri Jacobson, Ph.D., a retired psychologist, suggests that the inability to tell people no stems from childhood problems, so you may need to seek therapy for this. Whatever the reason is, it is imperative that you learn to tell people no sometimes in order to keep your sanity and achieve your highest potential. Once you have gotten past the guilty feelings for telling people no, you can get to the not hurting their feelings part.

How to Say No Without Hurting People’s Feelings

One of the biggest reasons that people’s feelings get hurt is because of miscommunication. The word no can be so final that a person feels like they don’t have a chance to negate it. Most people do not expect an answer to be no, so when you do say it, their expectations are shattered.

Your no could be harmless. You could have a good reason for saying no. However, emotions are impulsive, often showing up on the drop of a dime before clarification can occur.

That is the biggest reason that people’s feelings get hurt when you tell them no. It is also the fact that they’ve already convinced themselves that you’ll say yes.

Neither of these reasons have anything to do with you, what you said, or what you did. However, as a rule of society, you should still try to soften your no. After all, you don’t want to go around hurting people’s feelings all the time. Here are six ways to soften the blow.

1. Give them the reason for the no.

In many cases, telling the person the reason for your refusal can save a lot of hurt feelings. Misunderstandings happen so often and sometimes you may not be aware of them. Explaining yourself prevents these misunderstandings from occurring.

Of course, if your reason is something negative, such as you don’t like the person, then don’t say that outright! That is going to do more than cause hurt feelings. It will cause conflict.

Take the moment as an opportunity to work out the negative feelings towards that person. You may be surprised at the result.

2. Be kind when you tell them no.

Your tone of voice and body language can give off certain undertones when you talk. You may just be saying no, but your body may be indicating a more sinister answer (in the eyes of the person you are talking to). In fact, you may not be aware that you are giving off vibes with your body language.

Dr. David Matsumoto, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and an expert in the field of facial expressions and emotions. He says that when people are trying to conceal their emotions, they often give off microexpressions. These are unconscious, full-faced expressions that indicate how a person feels. Dr. Matsumoto says that other people might not register the entire facial expression because it happens so quickly, but they are aware that something about the person changed.

You can’t control micro expressions and in many cases, your body language happens instantly before you even get to think about it. However, what you can control is your kindness. Giving a kind response could cancel out these micro body movements that you aren’t aware of.

Use an easy, pleasant tone. Smile and look the person in the eye. Even though you’re telling them no, try to give an overall positive response. Kindness can go a long way when you’re trying to spare a person’s feelings while telling them no.

3. Suggest an alternative.

Instead of a hard no, try thinking of an alternative. Perhaps you could rearrange your schedule if it’s an activity, outing, or something that requires time. If you can’t rearrange your schedule, you could suggest a different time. If it’s something more of an inquiry, perhaps you could word the no differently, so it doesn’t sound so harsh.

Sometimes, thinking of an alternative to no can keep everyone happy. You don’t have to necessarily say yes, but you can pad the no, so it doesn’t land so hard. People want reinforcement that you still like them, aren’t mad with them, or don’t think they are a problem.

4. Do the good-bad-good scenario.

You could try sandwiching the no between two good statements so it doesn’t seem so cut and dry. For example, if someone asks you to go to lunch at X Cafe with them, you could say something like, “I wouldn’t mind having lunch with you. However, I can’t do it today because I’m busy, but maybe another time because X Cafe has great salads.”

The good-bad-good scenario incorporates the first two suggestions above. It combines them all to allow you to say no while keeping the other person’s feelings intact.

There are psychologists who suggest that the good-bad-good scenario doesn’t make the blow easier. However, this opinion applies to sandwiching negative feedback between compliments. That’s not what you’re doing here. You’re simply sandwiching your no between two points that are more positive.

5. Don’t make up a lie.

It can be tempting to make up a lie about why you’re saying no, but this will only blow up in your face. First off, unless you are a frequent liar, it’s hard to come up with a good lie on the spot. Plus, it’s usually pretty obvious when someone is lying to get out of something. The person you’re lying to will pick up on it fast.

This means that the person who you have just said no to will no longer trust you. You’ve lied to them and you hurt their feelings. It’s hard to come back from that.

No matter how hard it is, be honest. Tell the person no and tell them why. You don’t have to be mean about it. Just follow the first three suggestions and you’ll be fine.

6. Stop thinking that no equals hurt feelings.

There is a strong possibility that you aren’t hurting people’s feelings. You may only think you’re hurting people’s feelings. Dr. Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., suggests that it’s a person’s own thoughts that lead to hurt feelings, not the action that happened or what was said to them.

This is similar to what was mentioned earlier – that you may not mean any harm by saying no but the person’s emotions make them feel like you meant harm.

To take this a bit further, the person’s feelings may not be hurt at all. Instead, it’s your feelings about the situation that makes you think their feelings are hurt. Please stop and think for a moment before you assume their feelings was hurt.

Final Thoughts on Saying No Without Hurting Someone’s Feelings

It can seem a little unfair that you must be responsible for other people’s feelings while putting yourself first. Especially when you really don’t mean any harm. It is already hard enough to tell them no in the first place.

The good news is that it is not hard to be considerate of other people’s feelings when you tell them no. The six tips given above, along with the advice from counselors will make it a piece of cake. Put these tips into practice and soon you will be an expert at saving people’s feelings while saying no.

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