4 signs you should actually say no to something

Saying yes is often a good thing, but it can be just as positive to say no. But when? Two experts tell us the signs to look for.

The Indica Gallery, London. 9th of November, 1966. This is the time and place that John Lennon first met Yoko Ono, at the latter’s concept art exhibition. Lennon wasn’t at all impressed until he came across a piece called Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting.

Above a step-ladder dangled a magnifying glass. Lennon climbed the ladder, took the glass, and held it over a piece of paper attached to a sheet of glass suspended from the ceiling. On the paper was printed one small word…


Lol. It wasn’t cabbage. It was: YES.

Lennon said that, so impressed was he by its positivity, that it stopped him walking away from the gallery. The rest, as they say, is history.

Saying no can lead to saying “Yes!”

just say no carved into a tree - signs you should say no

Now, while yes worked out for Lennon and Ono (well, apart from the ‘Yoko split up the Beatles’ rumours and his eventual murder), and while saying yes to things is something we generally encourage as a positive move, it can also be positive to say no. What, no? Yes, no.

But when should you say no? It can’t be a default response: that would really bad if, say, the police asked you to pull over in your car. We spoke to psychologist Dr Alex Forsythe, Head of Psychology Partnerships at the University of Wolverhampton, and to business mentor, mindset coach and best-selling author Ruth Kidzi, about the psychology and benefits of saying no – and the signs that you should be saying it.

How yes and no work

“The psychology theory of reciprocity suggests that people have a tendency to reward kind actions,” says Forsythe. “Work in this area has been key in understanding the powerful forces that explain why people feel obligated, indebted and duty bound to say yes, or no, to requests.

“Humans are driven to make judgements and decisions quickly and simply. Reciprocity acts as a mental heuristic, which is our brains mechanism for taking effective shortcuts to decision making. You did something for me, therefore I should now do something for you. So powerful is this mental shortcut that some anthropologists and psychologists have argued that this culture of ‘indebtedness’ has been a major driving force in how we have developed as a society.

“The downside of this human indebtedness is that we can be driven to preserve dysfunctional relationships at significant personal cost. We find it hard then to say no when we really need to say no.”

Kidzi is a keen advocate of saying no at the right times.

Be positively selfish

“Saying no shows confidence and helps you to focus on what is important,” she says. “It means you have clear boundaries and people will appreciate these. If you manage the situation and make it clear as to why you are saying it, you’re not damaging yourself or others.”

“Honesty is the best strategy. If you’re at work and you’re going to say no when you’re asked to do something, be clear as to why – maybe you don’t have the capacity or it doesn’t fit with your skill set. In your personal life, be clear on why you are saying no and give an alternative – for example, suggesting catching up next month?”

Read more: A positively selfish guide to owning the wedding season

“I believe that being selfish is essential – if we don’t look after our own needs first we are not able to look after anyone else emotionally. As a reformed people-pleaser, I have realised that prioritising my needs helps everyone else, so I’m a huge fan of being positively selfish.”

“In short,” adds Forsythe, “if you want to influence, solve a problem, or effect an outcome then saying yes can have an important impact on other people and their perceptions of you. Saying yes can help you ‘bank’ some much-needed goodwill that can be called upon when things get though. Saying yes can be an investment in the future, but this only works if you are able to reflect on the reasons you are saying yes, because saying no can also make your life better.”

Here are three signs that you should say no to something:

1. Say no when you’re overloaded

stressed overworked man signs you should say no

The last time we looked, there were still only 24 hours in the day (apart from in this Norwegian town). Time is finite, even yours. If you say yes to everything, you will not only feel stressed – which can lead to all kinds of health problems, from mental health issues to diabetes – but you will run out of time for fun things, things you want to do, spontaneity, perhaps even eating and sleeping.

“When you are feeling like you have too much on, saying no or deferring is a way of helping you protect your time,” says Kidzi. “When you say yes to things and you mean no, you can not only increase your cognitive overload and overwhelm.

Assessing how much time that something will take and the impact on the relationship of a no is also important, a great way to “buy” time rather than make a decision immediately is to say you will refer to your calendar and get back to someone.”

2. If you can’t follow through on a ‘yes’

The hot topic in political debate is populism: people promising other people whatever they think they want. They’ll cut taxes but also increase spending – that kind of thing.

Well, people can be populists on a smaller scale. Yes, I can do that. Yes, I can give you that. Yes, I’ll be there. But if, like those politicians (come on, we all know who we’re talking about here), you can’t deliver on your promises, it can damage your reputation, among friends and colleagues.

Read more: “Why I chose to marry myself and live as a proud sologamist”

“Before you say yes (or no),” says Forsthe, “remember that at work, promises are the cornerstone of professionalism. When you say yes, you have to be able to keep that promise, because keeping your word is integral to your personal reputation, your team’s effectiveness and the organisational culture and climate that you work in.”

3. When it doesn’t feel right

worried woman signs you should say no

We all like to think of ourselves as rational, cerebral beings who make decisions based on information and experience. But good old gut instinct is the product of nearly two million years’ worth of evolution.

The same brain chemicals that told you great (x378) grandfather Ug the Unhygienic that certain animals and fungi were best avoided, now tells you when someone offering or asking you to do something is going to be unhealthy. So sometimes it’s smart to go with that gut feeling.

“If you feel intuitively that something is going to take up too much time or it isn’t a good idea listen to your gut and say no. Equally, first consider your relationship with the person asking: if a close friend asks you to do something last minute and you love and trust them, I would say to think hard before you say it. Equally, if something is making you feel like it doesn’t fit with your values it’s an easy no.”

4. When it stops you reaching your goals

climbing glacier signs you should say no

Most of us crave ‘me time’ – the chance to indulge ourselves in anything from BASE jumping to napping. We also have career goals and things we want to achieve outside of work. For all of this, you need time and energy (ok, maybe not the latter for napping), and consistently saying yes to everything robs you of both time and energy. Even if your only goal in life is to do nice things for other people, don’t you want to choose what those things are, rather than just bowing to every request?

“At work, you can never be completely productive if you continually say yes to requests that are outside of your commitments and priorities,” says Forsythe.

Kidzi agrees.

“If you are asked to do something which would mean that you wouldn’t be able to achieve a specific goal because you have less time and resources, it is simple to say no.

“When you say yes to things and you [want to] say no, you can not only increase your cognitive overload and overwhelm, but you take your focus away from your goals. Plus you can start to resent the person or situation if you feel that you wanted to decline but you didn’t.”

This article is part of our summer content series celebrating the concept of being ‘positively selfish’. We’re turning our focus on the self, recognising how a little selfishness can be a positive thing – how it can even promote your personal growth. Take a look.

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