5 Times It’s Hard to Say No (And How to Do It Anyway)

Chances are, you’ll find common ground—and useful lessons—in the following scenarios from Real Simple readers and staff.

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Photo by Jessica Hische

My friend constantly sends me invitations and e-mails for a product line that she sells from home. I feel so much pressure to buy, and I want to help her, but I don’t want to be guilted into spending money on stuff I don’t want.

Why it’s hard: These pitches rely on the fact that it’s difficult to refuse friends and family. Her relentless drumbeat adds to the pressure: “If someone says no to a first request, research shows that person is more likely to say yes to a second out of guilt,” says Vanessa Bohns, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University.

How to say no: Be supportive but direct. “I’m so glad you’ve found a passion you can use your great skills in!” suggests Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker in Salt Lake City and the author of The Assertiveness Guide for Women. “But I’m just not interested in buying any candles right now.” Humor can help. Maybe, “I have enough candles for the rest of my life even if the power went out forever.” End it there or, if you’re close, offer to support her in a way that doesn’t involve your credit card: “I’m happy to help you set up for your open house.” If her invitations keep flowing, ignore them. You are not obligated to keep answering, says etiquette coach Maralee McKee.

I work part-time and volunteer at my child’s school when I can. One parent asked me to take on a weekly job that would suck up my only free day. Instead of saying no, I’ve ignored her e-mails. I see her at school, and I hide.

Why it’s hard: Ignoring a difficult request can seem like the path of least resistance. But it’s ineffective and impolite to leave people guessing, says McKee. Over time, this tack can be more anxiety-producing for you than being direct.

How to say no: Send an apologetic e-mail. “I’m so sorry that I never got back to you. This year has totally gotten away from me, and I realize I’m not able to swing it. But I could make a little time to help with publicity next month.” She will probably be sympathetic—everyone can relate to being overwhelmed—and you won’t have to spend the Spring Sing hiding behind your program.

We have couple friends whom we enjoy seeing but don’t feel super close to. Yet they are always asking us to drinks and dinner. We need to take a break without hurting their feelings.

Why it’s hard: Clearly they seem to value your company more than you do theirs. Still, accepting more than you wish to will make you resentful of the time you do spend together.

How to say no: Resist the urge to let them down gently by being vague. “With a ‘That sounds fun…maybe’ you give the other person false hope, and it just puts you in the position of having to have more conversations,” says McKee. Again, be direct but kind: “We love seeing you, but the next few months are so busy for us. Can we check in with you in early March?”

My boss wants me to take on a new project. My plate is full. I know that I’ll be spread too thin to do a good job. But I am afraid that if I say no, she won’t think I’m a team player.

Why it’s hard: Your boss wields power over your annual review, your salary, and your career trajectory. “But if you say yes to everything, your work may suffer,” says social psychologist Susan Newman.

How to say no: This is not your problem to solve alone, says negotiation expert Sheila Heen: “Say to your boss, ‘I would love to do it, but I’m not sure I can add this while still giving my other projects the attention they deserve. I would appreciate your thoughts on how to prioritize.’ ” That way, allotting your time becomes a mutual yes or no.

My sister is going through a divorce and asked to move in with us until she can get back on her feet. My own marriage is strained, and having her in the house would ratchet up the pressure even more.

Why it’s hard: It’s hardest to refuse those we are closest to. “But think of your priorities as concentric circles. In the center is you, then your spouse and kids, then your extended family, then friends, then acquaintances,” says Hanks. “Reframe how you think about the decision. You are saying no to save your marriage, not because you are a bad sister.”

How to say no: First, be empathetic. “What people most want is to feel understood,” says Hanks. Say, “I love you, and I know you’re in a tough spot.” Briefly let her know why it wouldn’t work to have her stay with you now. Then pivot to offer some other kind of support. Can you help her apartment hunt for something reasonable? Buy her groceries for a while? If she comes back with “You’re my sister! You would if you loved me!” repeat your position as calmly as you can. Don’t get caught up in the emotional maelstrom. “You have set your boundary, and now she is manipulating you,” says Hanks.

My teenage son is embarrassed by our old car. One day he got a little teary over it, and I said I would trade it in. I now realize I can’t afford that.

Why it’s hard: Even if we are able to say a stalwart no to the rest of the planet, we wither at disappointing our kids. “It hurts to see them upset,” says Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut. “But by being so sensitive to their grievances, we miss out on opportunities to teach them resilience.”

How to say no: “I tell parents of teenagers not to use the word no directly—it shuts down conversation,” tricky at this age under the best of circumstances, says Greenberg. Instead, say, “I spoke too quickly, and I’m sorry. I don’t have the money for a new car, but maybe we can get a slight upgrade if you get a job to help with payments.” That teaches independence—even better (really) than that new-car smell.