How to Say No Without Hurting Anyone

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Sometimes the simplest of words are the hardest to say. Words like “no” carry more meaning as we get older. “No” may have been some of our first words in life, but how come as an adult this phrase feels so tough to spit out? Learning how to say no doesn’t need to feel difficult or some crazy form of rejection.

Here’s how to say no respectfully even in the most cringe-worthy situations.

1. The phone number situation

A packed bar filled with all of your friends on a Friday night sounds ideal. Everyone is having a great time until Jeremy from your bio lab shows up there. You know he weirdly hits on you in class and drunk you immediately wants to avoid him. After some small talk and nervous sipping of your gin and tonic he asks for your number. Some of us may have the audacity to flat out reject him, but what if you worry that rejecting him will make him feel upset or make the next bio lab awkward? Instead of handing out the rejection hotline or fake number, be honest with him. Say how you really feel and stress that you want to stick to being school friends. People can see through a phony excuse… even frat stars like Jeremy.

2. Your friend needs a favor

The stress of finals week piles up no matter how many or how few you have, but then your friend texts you asking if you can help her study for her finite math final. You sit there contemplating because A: you are a math genius and B: she improved her grades tremendously after you stepped in to help. Usually, you’d do anything for this person but right now you are studying so much you barely have time to eat lunch. “I just grew up and thought that being polite equated to doing whatever was needed of me and it took being almost done with high school to see that it was really unhealthy,” said American University junior Erin Centindag. “I found myself really dragged down by some of my closest friends not because they were bad people but because I did not create my own boundaries or hold much power in my relationships.” Tell them that they can study on their own—you have confidence in their abilities. Apologize and explain why you had to say no. Being direct with someone will go a long way.

3. Someone needs money

Anything to do with finances can be a tricky situation especially at the college age. Some of us are completely independent while others rely on parents for money. But say one of your roommates asks you to spot them for utilities this month— yes, you could just Venmo away the $25 and have to pick up some more hours at your job, or you could say no. Thinking of depriving your friend of something they need sucks. But tell them how you don’t have enough right now and this month is more financially difficult. You’re not made of money and it’s not your job to fund them.

4. Let’s get lunch/go out/hang out situation

Don’t agree to do something with someone if you don’t want to do it. The cardinal rule here: Don’t keep people guessing, and say no the first time. “In the past I would take on way too much in fear of disappointing someone else and it really drove me into exhaustion. It’s a lot better for me to say no (or at least eliminate the unnecessary things from my list) so that I don’t take on something and complete it halfhearted,” said AU senior Sydney Bevando. You can always make plans another time when you don’t need to deep clean your apartment and study for that chem midterm. Whether you actually have something to do or not, saying no respectfully works. “Saying no can actually be a really invigorating feeling because you’re taking control of your life with just that one word no matter how small it is.”

5. When you have to tell a supervisor no

You love your internship and the people in the office so far. Then, one day you get an email from your boss saying they want you to work half days on Friday mornings. Yes, what a fabulous opportunity, but on Fridays you usually work at the school’s super hip coffee shop. “During an internship I was given too many projects and someone asked me to do something with a completely unrealistic deadline. At the time I was still trying to get a job at this organization, so I was super nervous to turn down a project and seem unfit for the position,” said AU grad Gabriella Lourie. “I ultimately decided that overcommitting myself and doing a half-ass job would be worse. So I communicated honestly about my time and showed them my busy schedule, and they completely understood.”

6. The ex factor

That dreaded text from the ex that has to happen at least once…the big question of whether or not you will go to their mixer after a semester of not talking. You planned to have a low key night with the girls. A little part of you wants to go, but you know you shouldn’t. You don’t want to flat out reject him because you want to stay friends, but at the same time you need to decline. Be nice and direct by saying that you can’t go because you’re are hanging out with the girls and don’t want to go too crazy tonight. He’s not going to be upset, but instead relieved that he won’t have to stare at a read receipt all night.

7. A family member offers something you want to pass

Your distant cousins want you to visit for a weekend and even offer to pay for your flight/train/gas whatever. Yes, sounds like a sweet deal and fun relaxed weekend. But the weekend they offered is the same as your frat beach weekend— AKA the party of the century. Now you feel awful wanting to ditch your fun cousins you never get to see, but you’re only in college once. “Saying no to family, friends and even colleagues can be challenging. I never want to disappoint anybody but it’s important to be clear and direct when you want to say no,” said AU grad Talia Harris. Ask first if you could come another time. Don’t lie and say I have a test or something I need to study for because you’ll look like a big fat liar when pictures surface of you hula dancing in Myrtle Beach that same weekend. Instead, explain the situation and see if you can visit some other time.

8. Someone in your group project wants to meet up

Group projects are the bane of some people’s existence. You end up doing all of the work and stressing out beyond belief. Then, the most annoying type A person in the group asks you to meet up to discuss your part of the project that you’ve been slaving over for days. First, ask them why and then say that you are not available this week to meet in person. You can give them the option to call you or FaceTime, but don’t feel guilty in denying them their request. You know how hard you worked and you don’t need this person coming after you with all of your other busy requirements. Don’t feel guilty. It’s your life and silly group project, not the end of the world if you temporarily piss off a classmate.

9. Your friend asks to bring her bf of the week to your bday brunch

You love your roommate from freshman year with all your heart but she is the biggest serial dater you know. It’s no surprise to you that she asks if he can come to your 21st bday boozy brunch. But your parents and all your bffs chipped in to pay for this little get together. You can’t add another person, but don’t know how to tell her. “It’s hard to say no to friends and family because close relationships like that to me are all about give and take. I do things for them and they do favors for me in return, which is why it’s hard to say no,” said AU sophomore Bridget MacKimm. Simply say that you can’t afford another guest and it wouldn’t be fair to those who paid. However, talk about how you’d love to meet him and that you should all get dinner this week. Besides her bf may only be around for a few more weeks— saying no here didn’t hurt anybody.

10. You’re asked to run for some position in school

Organizations like student government, sororities, fraternities or even club sports teams all need leaders to help run the show smoothly. At one point in your college career someone may ask you if you’d like to run for some sort of leadership position. Leading a group seems like fun, but you also need to study for the LSATs while working two jobs this semester. You don’t want to let anyone down, but you also have to take your mental health and sleep schedule into account. You could say to the group that you are sorry to disappoint them but you can’t do it this semester with your busy schedule. 

I am a senior at American University studying broadcast journalism. One day I hope to be the next Kim Kardashian, but better (sorry Kim). In my free time I enjoy singing Karaoke and walking on the StairMaster. I love pizza, aliens, and Kanye West. I am originally from the Jersey Shore so the rest about me is self explanatory.

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