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How to say no clearly and kindly

  • August 25, 2021

Last week, I helped you set boundaries for COVID-related scenarios. Today, we’ll tackle how to approach social situations that suck your energy dry, and how to turn down invitations to events that you don’t want to attend.

Your responses will vary based on your relationship with this person—whether you’re close or just acquaintances, whether they’re your boss or a co-worker, whether you’ve had boundary issues with them in the past or not. The event also plays a role—saying no to a funeral is a different lift than turning down a kid’s play date. I’ll give you a bunch of suggestions to get you started; please mix, match, and adapt as needed.

An energetically-draining situation

A few of you asked about events or gatherings that—even outside of COVID—just suck your energy dry. You mentioned shopping invites from a toxic friend, a party with friends who like to drink way more than you, and times when you’re just struggling to be around people. Here are some generic phrases you can use to preserve your peace and energy:

  • I’m sure you’ll have a blast on this trip, but I really need a chill weekend at home. (Optional: Let’s plan a quiet brunch to catch up soon.)
  • My mental health isn’t great right now and I’m struggling to be social. Can I text you next week after I’ve had some time to recharge?
  • I can’t make dinner work. I’m feeling super over-extended and promised myself I’d say “no” to any new invitations.
  • Thanks for the invitation, but I’m craving time at home right now so I’ll pass.
  • I’d like to spend time with you, but I don’t enjoy that group. Hit me up for some one-on-one time.
  • I’m not drinking right now, so this party won’t be fun for me.
  • Our relationship hasn’t felt great lately, so no.

What if it’s a repeated invite, and you just never want to go? Maybe you don’t like the person, maybe you don’t have anything in common, or maybe they like to complain or gossip. This is where I’d stick to green boundaries, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. Try saying a simple “No, I prefer to go home after work” or “No, I don’t feel like going out for lunch today,” which are polite but also kind of short, and usually people will take the hint. If they don’t, or they accuse you of never wanting to go, you might take it a step further. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’re right, I don’t think we have much in common,” or “You’re right. I’ll be honest, I just don’t feel a connection here.”

Things you really should attend

A few of you asked about things you know you should attend for the good of the relationship, but are struggling to be excited about. You asked about your spouse’s (boring) recreational soccer matches, incessant meetings with your micromanaging boss,  and a good friend singing at a nightclub—and you hate nightclubs. Have you thought about compromising?

  • Babe, I can’t come to all your games, but I want to cheer you on. I can come for the first or second half tomorrow—which would you prefer? (And then bring a book to read during quiet moments.)
  • (In the next meeting): I’m feeling comfortable with the direction you’ve given me, and I’m ready to prove my skills. I’m asking you to trust me to get this project done. Can I ask that we not meet again until a week from now, so I can have time to work on this independently?
  • Nightclubs make me really anxious, but for you, I’ll be there. I may stand in the back by the exit, where it’s less crowded, but I’ll wave to you! Can I meet you somewhere before the show so I can say good luck? (This way, you don’t have to stay until the end if you don’t want to.)

Remember, boundaries are designed to make the relationship better. And it’s not being a pushover to agree to something you don’t really want to do because you know how happy it will make someone else. Compromise is a good thing, as long as it goes both ways.

People just taking advantage of you

Last but not least, we have repeated invitations to “help” others install flooring, perform their photo shoot (yes, it’s a hobby, but that doesn’t mean you work for free), pick them up from the airport last minute across town at 10 PM, and “collaborate” with your small business. In these cases, no means no, and you don’t have to apologize for protecting your space, time, and energy.

  • I’ve already committed to projects at my house this weekend. I use Task Rabbit for help with stuff like this, have you tried that app?
  • What you’re asking would require more of me than I have to give right now. (Suggest another vendor.)
  • I’m not able to pick you up. Uber leaves from the second floor, it’s about a 15 minute walk from most Delta gates. Have a good flight!
  • Thanks for thinking of me. This partnership isn’t right for me.
  • No, I’m not available.
  • I’d like to work with you. My rate for (X, Y, and Z) is $1,000.

I hope this helps you find your language around challenging invitations, and say no clearly but kindly. For more inspiration, see my Boundary highlights on Instagram. You can always send me a DM there with your boundary challenge—who knows, it might end up in an XO, MU one day!

XO Melissa