Queensland Law Society

Wellbeing: The power of “No”

There are many reasons why we may struggle with the idea of saying “no” to a request from others, both those which are brought to us directly, as well as the pleas and demands that we believe require us to “read between the lines”.

So why do we keep hearing ourselves say “yes”, even though all we can think of is a loud and clear “No”?  Maybe you want to avoid conflict and believe that denying someone what they want may upset them or spark an argument. Maybe you believe that saying “no” is uncaring, rude or even selfish; an inappropriate thing to do in an important professional or personal relationship. If it is not guilt or the fear of risking a friendship, it may also be fuelled by a perfectionistic notion that you can or should do it all, or an ego-driven desire to feel needed by others.

However, saying “yes” to everything is stressful, can bring you to the verge of burn-out, and the ongoing demands on your energy levels will be detrimental to your long-term health and wellbeing. Protecting your boundaries by saying “no” when required can also develop your own self-respect as well those around you. It is also important to remember that saying “yes” to everything also means that you will be unable to commit to more meaningful, personally fulfilling or other valuable opportunities.

Here are some tips and strategies to say “no” in difficult situations:

  • Check-in with yourself and identify your biggest fear in the situation. For example, could this be caused by a fear that other people will think negatively of you? Are you holding on to unhelpful beliefs which you have learned earlier in your life, eg the perception that saying “no” is impolite or may cause others to disapprove of you? Ask yourself how realistic this is, how much a negative reaction would impact you, and how you could deal with it. Also, what would you advise a good friend in your situation?

  • Offer an alternative. If you are not able or willing to do what someone has asked of you but would like to offer them something else instead, consider if there are other options which you would feel comfortable with. Examples may be: 
    • “Given my current workload, I won’t be able to finalise the whole report until Friday, but could I provide you with an outline highlighting key points. Would that help?”
    • “Unfortunately, I am not available to help out at the day of the party, but I could assist in the preparation by sending out the invites for you.”

  • Give the other person a choice. Put the questions back to the person asking by reframing or modifying the request in a way that makes it possible for you to be helpful while protecting your limits, eg:
    • "I'm happy to do X, Y, and Z; however, I would need five days, rather than two, to give these tasks the justice they deserve. Alternatively, I could focus on one of the items in order to meet your initial timeframe. How would you like me to prioritise the tasks?"

  • Do not make excuses. Regardless if you can suggest other options or have to decline a request completely, it is most helpful in the long run to do so without excessive apologising or providing all sort of reasons - including made-up ones - as to why you have to turn down the request. Excuses can allow other people to modify their request so that your excuse doesn’t justify your polite refusal – but more importantly, they make you look and feel uncomfortable and inauthentic.

  • Stay firm. There is no need to be defensive. Always be polite and sympathetic, but stand your ground and communicate clearly. This will send a strong signal to the party that you won’t be pressured into submission.

For more suggestions on different techniques to build healthy boundaries and say “no”, have a look here.

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.


Rebecca Niebler
Organisational Culture and Support Officer, QLS Solicitor Support (QLS Ethics and Practice Centre)
5 May 2020