The Art of Saying No (Episode 75)

If the thought of saying “no” makes you feel a little (or a lot) uneasy, you’re not alone. Join host Kay Coughlin for this very practical episode on how to say “no” even when you feel uncomfortable. 

As always, you can expect to be guided with no judgment and no guilt!

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: The Art of Saying No (episode 75)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a life coach for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers like me, who want to get some rest and feel less alone. I taught myself how to navigate all of my responsibilities and get into the mindset I need so that I can set boundaries, have self-compassion and prioritize myself, so that my needs get met too. And that’s what I help my clients do. And if we can do it, I know it’s possible for you too.

This is episode 75.

You know, it’s been a while since I’ve done an episode that’s focused on setting boundaries and that’s something that I talk about in my practice and actually in my life.

And given that I’ve been talking about taboo subjects on the podcast for the last few episodes, or anyway, these are topics that seem to be taboo for family caregivers. I think it’s a good time for an episode to talk about saying “no.” So that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

And what I find is we talk about saying “no” a lot and I mean, caregivers and families and friends and unit. But we’re really afraid to act on it, to actually say the word “no.”

I called this episode, “The art of saying no,” but you know, it’s really about both the art and the pain. There’s at least two sides to this, there’s more than two sides to this. There’s the good and the bad of saying “no”, there’s the beautiful and the ugly. There’s just so many facets to this.

So I’m going to start with a story about saying “no”, and it is about being a primary caregiver. It’s not my story. This is a story from a client of mine. This client was the primary caregiver for a family member who passed away. Well, a few weeks after this family member passed away, so this would have been while they were still in the middle of that, you know, that really fresh grief, that kind of grief, that, that happens soon after somebody passes away.

So in the middle of that, another family member called my client and said to them, “Aell, now you have time to be my caregiver.” And this family member wasn’t even going to ask. They just assumed that my client would be taking on this caregiver role. It didn’t occur to them to ask. And it didn’t occur to my client that they could say “no”.

Now in the end, my client did say “no”, it was pretty exciting and pretty liberating for them. And it was a good reminder to me that, especially for those of us who have family caregiver responsibilities, it’s like, we can actually just forget that, that we’re allowed to say “no”, that we don’t always have to say “yes”.

So I mentioned that saying “no” is about boundaries. So before I get any farther into this episode, let me give you my definition of boundaries. This does not come from a dictionary. I just thought it would be really helpful to create a functional definition, to really help me talk about boundaries with my clients and in my practice. So I created this definition some time ago. You may have heard it on episodes before this.

This is a two part definition. The first part of the definition is, it’s making decisions about what’s okay and what’s not okay with you. And making decisions about what you’ll do when things that aren’t okay happen, because those things are going to happen.

So the second part of this definition then is that you have to communicate your boundary decisions to other people. And I always say, I wish that we could talk about boundaries without saying that we have to talk to other people about them, but then boundaries wouldn’t work. So we have to talk about that.

The reason I break this definition up into two parts is that these are very different skill sets. And so I just want to be really clear about these two parts. There’s the making decisions part and that’s one skill set, and then there’s the communicating to other people part, and that’s a very different skill set.

Now, since I’m talking about two-parters, I should let you know that this is the first of two companion episodes. Next week on the podcast, I’m going to talk about the art of saying “yes”. So stay tuned for that.

I’d really like to dive into this by talking about making it as easy as possible to say “no” boundaries. And as I said, saying “no” really is, is a boundary. These are simplest for us to keep track of when you have a short list of things that are most important to you. And I mean that instead of having a list of a whole bunch of rules that you have to try to remember, you have just a few things to keep in mind.

And that makes it easier to respond appropriately when things come up and you have to decide, “Do I want to say ‘no’? Or do I want to say ‘yes’ to this?”

So I have an example for you. Time is something that’s really important to me. So that’s a good example for me to use here now since respecting my time, and also the time of the people around me, it means so much to me. The people in my life who are close to me know that I might get very upset if they are late to things. So I tell them upfront that if they’re running late for a party or a meeting or whatever, just tell me so that I can go ahead without them, because I do not like to be late personally.

But I don’t have a whole bunch of rules about things we can and can’t be late to, or how many minutes I’m willing to wait around. I just don’t get into details like that. So I’m not spending my days trying to remember my own rules about time and about how late we’re allowed to be, because I don’t have those rules. I have this general knowledge that I’ve communicated to them, that time is important to me. So I communicate that decision about time to my family and friends, and I just do that as needed.

I have these big categories of things that are important to me. And those are for me, time, physical safety, the ways I do and don’t like people to touch me. Emotional safety is another one for me. So I know what these are, and those are my general categories.

At the same time, I want to let you know that I also do have just a few boundaries that I’ve had to set for specific people. That’s normal. That’s the way boundaries work. And I don’t have a ton of these specific boundaries that I have to set for specific people. So it’s not a lot for me to remember and when I need to do it, then it’s pretty easy for me to do.

Now I do want to acknowledge that saying “no” is like a muscle. It’s just like a muscle that’s in your body. And that means that you have to keep it in shape. So I practice saying “no”, and I want to encourage you to do that also.

I have to practice it because it was so hard for me to learn, to say “no” in the first place. And I really have to stay on my toes with it because I went for gosh, probably 35 or 36 years of my life, when I really tried to avoid saying “no” as much as possible. And that means that by the time I decided to start saying “no”, that I was going to make that just one of my characteristics, and one of the ways I take care of myself, I had decades of, of not using the word “no.” I had a lot of unlearning to do. And even all these years later, you know, I’m about to turn 49 as I record this, even all these years later, I still have to remind myself and practice saying, “no.”

There are lots of ways to say “no”.

Now, “no” is a complete sentence all on its own. No matter how you look at it, it is grammatically correct. It is informative. It is declarative. I mean, it is a complete sentence. You know, if you’re all into grammar and you don’t agree with me, feel free to let me know, but I’m going to argue about it because that one’s really important to me.

So you can always just say “no”. And I’d like to encourage you to just practice. Say, “no”, just say the word “no”. See if it’ll come out of your mouth. See what it feels like coming out of your mouth. So I do practice that. I also practice and yes, I really do practice.

To saying other kinds of “no,” there’s other ways of phrasing it.

And one of those is “no thank you.” And another one is “please stop, I don’t like that.” And then there’s, you can say, “actually that’s not okay with me.” And then another one is “no, I am not interested in that.” And there are so many variations of that.

Now, everything that I just talked about there, “no”, and all of its variations, these are what I call hard “no”s. And what you need to know about saying a hard “no”, or a firm “no” is this. You do not have to justify it or rationalize it or apologize for it. In fact, if you do say “no” and then add a justification or an explanation or a rationalization? Like if you say, “oh, no, I’m already over committed and there’s no way I could fit another thing in.” When you add those rationalizations or those justifications, the person you’re talking to might actually think that you’re willing to negotiate. They hearing you say “no” and then they hear you add those qualifiers. And very often they take it as a sort of invitation to start coming up with terms where you will actually say “yes” to them.

So unless you want to negotiate, just say “no”, or “no, I’m not interested” or whatever. Be clear and be firm and stop there.

Sometimes though you do want to say a softer “no”, and that’s what I would call saying “no”, but you’re willing to negotiate a little bit. That kind of stuff comes up all the time and it’s totally okay.

You know, as a caregiver, the person that you care for might ask you to take them on errands on a specific day of the week, but you can’t do it that day, and you can only do it on another day. And so that’s a negotiation. That’s reasonable.

I mean, it seems reasonable to me, my mom and I do this all the time. We negotiate about things that aren’t going to work for me or that aren’t going to work for her. And it’s a two-way street. She’ll ask me for things. And sometimes I ask her for things and we have to come to agreement about what really is going to work and what’s not going to work. So that’s a pretty common situation.

In fact, I’m going to tell you that it’s very possible that the situations where you are willing to negotiate, where you have to say “no” to the request, but you’re willing to do something else like it, something similar or, or change sort of the terms of their request. I think that’s probably more common than situations where you have to say a hard, “no.”

I hope that actually makes it easier for you to think about saying “no”. That makes it a little bit easier for me to think about saying “no”. If I want to negotiate something, I can, that’s not out of the question. I can be as in control of that as I can of saying my hard “no”.

Now, let me talk about apologizing here for a second. Whether you’re saying a hard “no”, or a firm “no”. Or, or saying “no” in a way such that you can negotiate something different, you just don’t ever have to apologize for saying “no”. What’s interesting about this is that is really been talked about a lot in pop culture over the last few years. I don’t know, maybe 10 years that women tend to apologize a lot.

So if you identified with that already, then maybe this already feels familiar to you. This idea of saying “no”, and then apologizing for saying it. As for me, as far as I can tell, anyway, I am not somebody who apologizes as a habit, or at least I haven’t done that for years and years, but I have found that I can fall back into apologizing when I say “no”. That’s a habit that I want to break. And I try very hard to break it.

And I don’t have to apologize. That’s not something that I owe to anybody. It’s just kind of a mannerism that I picked up. So I’m really trying not to do that. And I just want you to know that you don’t have to do it either.

You do not have to apologize for saying “no”.

There’s something important about the act of saying “no”, that I really just want to articulate, just say out loud for you right here. So you hear me saying it and it’s this: it’s okay to have mixed emotions about saying “no”.

Look, something can be absolutely right for you to say “no” to. But you still might feel a little conflicted about it. Maybe you’re absolutely sure that it’s the right thing, but then you feel a little worried that if you say “no” one time, maybe they won’t ask you again. And that can be a little worrisome. Or maybe you might be anxious to think that if you say “no”, that somebody is going to think that you’re not a caring person. Or you’re worried that they might think that you’re saying “no”, because you’re not capable of doing that, that you might actually look less capable or less generous. Or you might even be worried that it’s going to seem a little selfish or feel a little selfish if you say “no”. Those things are all normal.

It’s just really human to feel uncomfortable saying “no”, because a lot of us have picked up that discomfort as a habit, or we learned it from someone else. There’s somebody in our life at some point, maybe lots of people who have really encouraged us to have icky feelings about saying “no”, maybe both of those things are true for you. Maybe you picked it up as a habit and you continue to hear people tell you that you should feel bad if you say “no”.

And you know what? You can say “no”, anyway. You can have those mixed reactions and you can still say “no”. I think it’s really important to give yourself permission to say “no”, even if it doesn’t feel great, or I should say even when it doesn’t feel great, because I go through this every day.

If I even think about saying “no”, I can easily get a little twinge of regret or nerves or anxiety down in my stomach. I feel it. And that’s fine because I know that it’s going to happen anyway. I don’t try to push those emotions away and I go ahead and say “no”.

Now some of us avoid saying “no”, because of the environments that we’re in. You could be in a job or a community or a relationship where people don’t actually say “no” much. Or you could be in any of those situations where people expect you to say “yes”. Like other people are allowed to say “no”, but you’re expected to say “yes”. And it doesn’t feel safe to say, “no”, it might not feel physically safe. It might not feel emotionally safe. So I really want to recognize that that could be happening to you. Because it happened to me for a lot of my life. That is how I am so easily able to recognize it now.

And those things might make it a lot harder for you to say “no”, or to get started saying “no”. And I don’t really want to downplay this because this really could affect your ability to say “no” and your willingness to say “no”.

I mean, if something is scary and doesn’t feel safe, then it’s going to be hard to do or to get started doing it. And I want you to know that you’re in good company. This is something that I hear about from my clients a lot. You are not alone in this. It still doesn’t mean that you can’t say “no”. What it means is that the work that you’ll need to do inside of your own head before you can say “no”, it’s just going to look different from other people.

And maybe you’re going to need to change some things along the way or learn some new skills. Like maybe you’re going to need to change some relationship dynamic or a rule at work, or you’re going to need to get clarification on different things. And you’re probably going to need to just practice saying the word “no”. That’s why I already talked about it in this episode, is how to build that muscle to say “no”.

And even in my family, this has come up. There’s this environment, especially because I’m a family caregiver, this expectation that there are certain things that I have to say “yes” to it’s like in the air around me. That’s why I call it your environment or, I guess culture would be another word for that. So in my own family, more times that I can remember, honestly, I have gotten a call or a text from someone that says basically, “but you have to do this” or where someone is making an assumption that I’m going to do something.

And that’s like my client, right, whose family member just assumed that they were going to take over as caregiver because they had the time.

And what I’ve had to do is I have had to train myself to push back on those assumptions. On those times when people say, “well, of course you have to do this.” And I’ve learned to say, “well, actually I don’t have to do that. No.”

This took me a really long time and it was painful and it took me a lot of practice because my family culture was one where for the longest time, I just agreed to go along. If the person telling me there was something I needed to do, if they were loud enough and forceful enough, then I just went along with it because I didn’t want to rock the boat.

So, I’m not saying that it’s easy to do, but I’m saying that it is possible to learn to say “no”, even if your situation or circumstances make it really difficult. And I know that because I learned to do it and also I help my clients do that all the time, because here’s something that’s true.

This is true for all human beings everywhere. And this is it: we have a right to set boundaries and we have a right to say, “no”. Look, I get that flies in the face of a lot of what we’ve been taught, and a lot of what we hear every day. But it is true. Setting boundaries and saying “no” is a human right for all humans, no matter your situation, no matter your sexuality, your gender identity, no matter the role you have in your family.

Every human being has a right to set boundaries and has a right to say “no”. And I almost want to tell you to take this little piece of the podcast episode and go back and put it on repeat so that you can hear it as many times as you need to.

You have a right to say “no”, just like I have a right to say “no”.

And every person we know, we all have that same right to say, “no”.

I told you that I want to make it as easy as possible for you to get started saying “no”. So let me give you this recommendation on how to get started as easily as possible. You are allowed to start with easier situations, easier relationships, easier people. You are allowed to start with something where the stakes are going to be lower.

You don’t have to start saying “no” in some situation where the stakes are really high or where your anxiety is really high or where you feel really unsafe. You can start with something smaller. When I work with my clients, I often call this the low hanging fruit. You’re allowed to just go for the low hanging fruit. You don’t have to go for the gold medal the first time out of the gate.

So it’s hard to give examples of what those easier things could look like for you. So I’m just going to give you an example from my life. So, you know, 10 or 12 years ago, I guess when I really started to first say “no”, I started by saying “no” to some different volunteer opportunities and these were volunteer opportunities where I could already tell that I wasn’t being treated very well in the first place.

Oh my gosh. I can think of this one volunteer job in particular, where I was being treated with a lot of disrespect. I was getting blamed for things that I hadn’t been involved in and that I hadn’t been told about. I was getting these nasty emails from the volunteer coordinator who I had never met, by the way, but who thought that I wasn’t doing my job correctly. I was getting shut down when I asked for clarification on things and for basic information. And basically it was awful. So that volunteer experience, that was low-hanging fruit for me, they made it really easy for me to say “no”, because I was so fed up and also the stakes were low. I just didn’t have a lot invested in that opportunity.

And for me that felt like cutting my teeth and really starting to build my muscle saying, “no”. It really felt even then, like I could get used to saying “no” by doing it in those obvious places. What I did by saying “no” in situations that were easier was I taught myself to observe the emotions that would come up for me when I said “no”. What my body felt like while I was saying “no”. And I learned to observe how my life changed for the better after I said “no”.

And I used that literally to build my muscle, so that I could get used to it, so that I could do it when things were more difficult.

Okay. I know that I covered a lot in this episode today. So here’s a quick recap of everything I talked about, about what I think is the art of saying “no”.

First of all, I find it easiest to know what my big categories are, of things that are important to me, rather than making a bunch of little rules about saying “no”, that I have to try to remember. And I just do that with all the boundaries in my life that are important.

Next one, you don’t have to apologize or justify or rationalize saying “no”. And if you do, people might interpret that as you being willing to negotiate, which isn’t always true. You’re not always willing to negotiate. Sometimes you are, and that’s normal and it’s fine. But if you don’t want to negotiate, don’t open the door for that.

Next one, then, it is totally okay to have mixed feelings when you think about saying “no” to something.

And then last, your environment or your culture might make it more challenging for you to say “no” and that’s normal. And you can still say “no” anyway, you can still learn how to do it. You can build those muscles, that just might look different for you.

And let me leave you now with this one final thing. You’re not behind. I didn’t really start learning how to say “no” until I was probably in my late thirties. You’re not behind. Just start right where you are. Saying “no” is a human right. I said that before, and I’m repeating it here. It is a human right.

Even if you’ve never done it before in your life, figure out something that’s going to be small or easy to say “no” to. Try that out. See what it feels like. Get used to it. Build that muscle.

I am going to be right here, cheering you on.

If you liked this episode, you have to go check out my monthly membership for family caregivers who want to get some rest and feel less alone. It’s the place for emotionally-safe community, brave self-development, and always self-compassion. You can find a link to it in the show notes and on my website at Facilitator On Fire dot net. And that is If you’re looking to connect with me, the best place to find me is in my free Boundaries Community. And I would love to hear from you. I can’t wait to be with you again in the next episode From One Caregiver to Another.

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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