The Ick of “No”

Ah, the word “no”. How does such a simple word get so complicated?

So ominous?

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Behold…a brief tale to illustrate my question.

Last year I stepped into a volunteer leadership position for an organization. I did my best with it, but I really didn’t feel useful. Nor did I enjoy it at all.

And so when the time came to renew it, I decided not to.

I dreaded telling the woman in charge, who was also a close colleague. And she didn’t make it easy.

I’d only gotten a few words out before she cut me off and asked if I could just, please, commit to one more year.

Despite the “no!” that was loudly echoing in my head, I heard myself sigh and tell her “okay”.

And then? Immediate regret.

It’s amazing, how our “no” aversion can really mess with our lives:

  • We need the weekend to de-stress but we find ourselves at a fundraising event instead…because we couldn’t say no
  • We don’t want to lunch with that colleague who makes us uncomfortable, but we find ourselves dining together anyway…because we couldn’t say no
  • We decide that we will not run that personal, time-consuming errand for our manager again, but we find ourselves doing it…because we couldn’t say no

Why in the world  is the word “no” so icky for us? Why does it make us feel like this inside?

blog - disgusted 3

Because we’re human. Which means…

…we hate conflict

…we don’t want to let people down

…we want to be liked

…we LOVE being the hero

…we suffer from guilt the second we put ourselves first

When we say “no”, it messes with all of that. And it feels icky. And so we don’t say it.

And then things get really messy…

…we feel stressed, using up our precious time on things that aren’t super important to us

…we feel frustrated when things don’t go well, which we suspected would happen

…we feel resentful and it shows in our attitude and our work, potentially damaging our credibility

Now, there may be times when saying “yes” even when we don’t want to is worth it…like when we volunteer on a weekend or do a favor for a friend.


When it becomes a pattern, when we continually commit to something that isn’t right for us, then we need to get over the ick of “no”.

How, exactly? I present a few strategies below…

#1: Embrace verbal brevity

One of the mistakes we make when saying “no” is that we launch into a loooong speech about why we can’t do it.

When we give lots of reasons, those reasons can be debated. And when they’re debated well they can make us feel helpless to the ick. And so we cave.

A colleague of mine taught me that “no” is a full sentence. You really don’t owe people more than that.

Even adding a few words and simply saying “No, I can’t do that” or “No, I’m sorry”…and then not talking more…may be your best strategy.  Especially if the ick of “no” causes you to ramble.

#2: Know that you’re awesome no matter what

Saying “yes” can be very alluring. We get to bask in our own greatness and charity…in the fact that somebody needs us, wants us, or relies on us.

That they will like us.

In order to be good at “no” you must be clear that you are likable no matter what others might think about your decisions. No matter if they’re displeased or don’t like you for a while.

And let’s get real. They’ll probably still like you. They might even respect your “no”. Because they’ve found themselves in the ick before and they know how it feels.

#3: Avoid the “yes” at all costs

If the pressure of simply saying “no” in the moment is too much, then at least keep the word “yes” from passing through those lips of yours.

Let the person know that you appreciate the request, and that you just need some time to think about it. Get back to them quickly with your “no”, keeping your comments both respectful and brief (see strategy #1).

It’s better to say “no” the first time, then to have to say it after you’ve already said “yes” due to the pressure.

That’s what I wound up doing when I told my colleague that I actually couldn’t do the role this year.

In the end I knew that it was the right thing to do for me, that I wouldn’t regret it. That I would sleep better.

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And I was right.

Despite the ick in the moment.

This week…

Recognize how the ick of “no” is messing with your life.

Figure out some ways to overcome its power over you.

Say “no” when you mean it. Say “yes” when it’s appropriate.

And see how great it feels.

Now go do good…and do it well.

PS: Thanks to San for the fun photos of the icky guy, and to for the ominous no.

9 thoughts on “The Ick of “No”

  1. CraigB says:

    Oh how appropriate and timely, as always. Now if I could just do that….

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      Yes, so much easier said than done Craig! I’ve actually found myself trying this three times since I wrote this (which was just a few days ago). Practice practice practice yes?

  2. Heather says:

    This is so very timely for me! Along these lines sometimes making decisions that are best for you, but not favored by others is a form of saying no – and one that I have recently had to do. I’ve found it difficult for all of the reasons you’ve pointed out above, at the same time I know it’s the best decision for me…. Thank you!

  3. Deirdre Maloney says:

    That’s such a great point, Heather…”No” can actually be icky in lots of ways, including ways that don’t involve the word itself. Congrats to you on sticking to it!

  4. Chris says:

    Really like and relate to your article.
    Thanks, Deidre

  5. Rosleen says:

    Great lesson and very timely for me. But how do you get rid of the ick, especially when you see that person often?

  6. Deirdre Maloney says:

    That’s a tricky one, Rosleen. The first thing, I think, is feeling confident about your decision, knowing that it’s the right thing for you (and that you are your best advocate always). If you feel like there’s tension with that person, you could address it directly (which is no fun, I know!) and just ask if they want to talk about it. The important thing is not to go backwards or cave if you do have more discussion…this is about what’s best for you. Ultimately, if the other person doesn’t like it and can’t get past it, then the ick might stay for a while. And this might just be how it needs to be if you have made a choice that takes care of you. Thanks for the comment and question!

  7. Patty says:

    Thank you Deirdre. A so necessary topic. I spent a good part of my life being a people pleaser and saying no when someone wanted me to say yes was a big guilt trip. It wasn’t until I became confident in myself and did not need other people’s approval (maybe only sometimes) that I could say no – which as you so well put it – is a sentence! Keep it simple

  8. Deirdre Maloney says:

    Love the Keep it Simple reference – so true, and yet so simple! Thanks for your comments Patty!

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