Using Emotional Intelligence To Help You Say "NO"


I have been a Personal Development Trainer and Coach for over 12 years and during this time I have met hundreds of people who have difficulty saying this small, 2 letter word “no”. From Personal Assistants to Senior Programme Managers, it seems this is an extremely common cause for concern for many of us. It doesn’t just affect our work life; not saying no can also lead to taking on too many family commitments or too much community responsibility. This in turn of course affects our ability to perform well.

A reluctance to say ‘no’ can leave us feeling anxious and frustrated. The impact of always saying ‘yes’ can lead to increased and often unmanageable workloads resulting in long hours, missed lunches and extra pressure. This additional pressure can then lead to stress and more anxiety. Constantly saying ‘yes’ to requests can make us berate ourselves for being “weak”, verbally kicking ourselves when we wish we had spoken up. This is not good for our self-esteem and is damaging for our mental and emotional health. Long-term if we continue to always say ‘yes’, regardless of what we really want, it can lead to us being taken advantage of and manipulated.

Many people I meet say that they have “tried to say no” but it hasn’t worked. The person they’ve responded to has simply pushed back and so they’ve “had to” say ‘yes’. There are many reasons why saying ‘no’ might not work (at first). It could be that you weren’t convincing when you said it; your language (visual and verbal) implying that it was more of a suggestion that a definite no. The other person is usually so used to you saying yes that they will try all they can to get you to revert back to this position. And it can be difficult to change your own habit to do so. Another common error is using the right language or a particular technique without really believing it. If you haven’t explored the underlying reasons for why you’re not saying ‘no’, any techniques won’t stick for long and you’ll be easily forced back to saying yes. If you don’t believe that you have the right to say no or if you’re held back by a concern of some sort, the techniques just won’t be effective.

So, what is Emotional Intelligence and how can it help you to say no?

According to the originators of the theory, Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey, the ability based approach to Emotional Intelligence is “the ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thought, understand emotions and to regulate emotions to promote personal growth”. Dr. Susan David ( adapted this to the easy to remember RUUM™ model that I use every day.

Step 1 – Recognising

The first step is to recognise how you are feeling. Think of a time when you’ve wanted to say no. Perhaps your boss has asked you to stay late or a colleague needs your help again with a task that they really should be doing themselves. How do you feel in that moment? What one word would you use to describe it? Not everyone finds it easy to label their feelings. Being open to them and paying them more attention can help. Perhaps just thinking about this kind of situation is bringing on these feelings right now. Once you can label it move on to step 2.

Step 2 – Using

Identify how your feeling is affecting your thinking. Have you ever been angry during an argument with a partner and found you start remembering other times when you were angry with them? You may not want to remember these times but they are physiologically and neurologically being accessed because mood impacts on memory. “Thinking” and “Feeling” are not completely separate in the brain or unconnected. Every decision is impacted by how you feel as is your problem solving ability. So when you want to say no and you’re feeling anxious maybe you’re remembering other times when you were anxious? Perhaps last time you said no it didn’t have a good outcome. Maybe you’re thinking that they won’t like you if you say no? Or that you won’t be a helpful person if you say no? Or that it’s not right to say no? These thoughts are indicative of your beliefs about yourself and others. But beliefs are not always facts and they often hold us back. To help you start to overcome these limiting beliefs you can question them – how helpful are they? How true are they? Where is the evidence? What evidence do you have to the contrary?

Using emotion is also about our ability to switch between moods and our experience of emotion. It’s also linked to our level of felt empathy. Those with strong abilities here are empathetic and switch between moods easily, rarely getting stuck in a mood they don’t want. This empathy can help you to say no effectively. If you start with empathy, the other person is more likely to listen to you and be open to your suggestions. You can hear about how to do this on the audio clip that accompanies this guide.               

Step 3 – Understanding

This involves thinking a bit more deeply to get insight into what’s stopping us from saying no. We need to figure out what else we are feeling and the causes of these feelings. Emotions are complex and follow logical patterns; changing and progressing over time. We don’t just feel one emotion at a time. So, what has caused these emotions that you experience when you want to say no?

I find that most limiting behaviours are a result of fear of some sort. The universal cause of fear is being physically or psychologically threatened in some way. But you will have an individual cause of fear based on what’s important to you. I see many forms of fear when I’m coaching people around these kinds of topics. One common concern is to be worried (a mild form of fear) that if you say no it means you won’t be a helpful person and people won’t like you. So maybe the cause of this is that you feel your friendships are under threat? If you like to please people you could feel like your position as a likeable, friendly and helpful person is being threatened.

You also need to ask yourself “What else am I feeling?” Why are you really not saying no? What’s stopping you? It’s common for someone to also feel a little proud that they have been asked to take on another task, or to help out a colleague. It’s nice to feel we’re trusted to get things done and to do them well. So are you also feeling a bit pleased that you’re needed? Perhaps you get a sense of satisfaction from helping others. But how helpful is this to you long-term? How is this affecting you? How can you get these positive experiences and feelings without the negative impacts?

It’s important to pay attention to these feelings and consider how they will progress over time. How will you feel after you’ve said yes again? Disappointed? Frustrated? Annoyed with yourself? How will you feel tonight when you’re thinking about how much work you have to get through this week? Or tomorrow when your to do list is getting bigger and deadlines are approaching? Finally, how do you want to feel when you would like to say no?

Step 4 – Managing

Steps 1 – 3 should have helped you to uncover why you are not saying no in the first place. You can only start to change this once you know the underlying reasons behind the behaviour. That’s another reason why saying no doesn’t always work – if you haven’t assessed what’s holding you back you won’t know how best to move forward.

Managing emotion is about achieving optimal emotional outcomes. It involves taking a Meta view; looking at the situation objectively. Is this “normal” for you? How often do you struggle to say no? How about other people, would they say no if they needed to, how would they deal with this?

One thing to consider at this stage is short-term and long-term strategies. Saying yes may make you feel good in the short-term but will this good feeling continue if you never say no? Chances are if you’re struggling to say no often you need a long term strategy.

Susan David suggests considering 4 different areas when working on your long-term strategy;

  1. Behaviours: We all have behavioural preferences; habits of behaviour that can help or hinder our interactions. If you find it challenging to say no it may be that you prefer passive behaviour. This is favoured by people who want to avoid conflict, keep the peace and be liked. It can be helpful but it can also be damaging, especially when we are doing it automatically rather than consciously choosing it. All behaviour is a choice, even if you’re not conscious of it. There is an alternative way of behaving that can still maintain harmony and positive relationships; it’s called assertive behaviour. One action that you could take to help you to say no is to learn how to behave more assertively. The audio clip with this guide should be a good start and there are many other resources on this topic out there for you to draw upon. Perhaps your workplace offers training on the topic?

  2. Situation: You could begin practising being assertive with easier situations. Perhaps try it out on family members before saying no to your boss, or maybe the other way round is easier?! Also consider your environment. It’s helpful to have the conversation face to face and ensure the conversation is conducted in a private area rather than in the team work-space.

  3. Emotions: Be aware of how you’re feeling and how they are feeling now and how they are likely to feel when you say no. Use empathy in your response and be prepared for how they might reply.

  4. Thoughts: Can you re-frame thoughts to make them more helpful or remind yourself of how saying no will benefit you in the long term? Tell yourself why you are doing this and why it’s important to you.

Learning to say no doesn’t mean saying no all the time. It’s important to choose your battles and use your judgement. Saying no doesn’t mean that you’ll become an unhelpful, selfish person. It means you’ll be treating yourself with respect and looking after your self-esteem. You’ll find that by doing this other people will respect you more.

If you’d like further help on saying no, please refer to our short audio clip which accompanies this guide. It will take you through a useful, simple and effective technique. Just remember you must work through steps 1-4 first!

I really hope you found this e-guide useful. If you’d like to find out your actual level of Emotional Intelligence you can do so by taking the MSCEIT test. Just contact us to book.