When You Have Trouble Accepting “No” for an Answer

Roll for Yes

“No” comes in many forms throughout your day.  The horn blowing in traffic to let you know you can’t move into the next lane, the cashier who closes his line when you’re ready to check out, the toddler who screams “No!” as you try to put away a toy, the spouse who declines your suggestion of dinner out.

Whenever you think you deserve a “yes,” and know what that looks like, you probably shift into the attitude of, “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer!”  Or you might become defensive and use “Why not?” as a challenging reply.

We know when we ask a question that the chance of receiving the answer we want is like a roll of the dice.  Why is accepting “no” such a difficult thing to do?

Early Messages

Intellectually, we know that limits and boundaries make it possible for humans to harmoniously exist together socially.  However, “no” can be an emotionally charged word depending on how you learned it as a child.

“No” can represent protection or safety as in, “I’m telling you no for your own good.”  But it can also present the message that you are a bad person, you can’t do anything right, or you are being rejected. 

Think of it this way: if you ever passed notes in school that read, “Do you like me?  Yes or No” and you received multiple notes back with “No” circled, it’s no wonder you have issues with the word as an adult.

Accepting Graciously

Etiquette, at times, asks that you set personal issues aside to do what is right in that moment.  One of these times will be when you are told “No.”

In that moment, you are called upon to accept the answer graciously:

  • Make eye contact with the person who is saying no or delivering negative feedback directly.  Keep your eyes and face relaxed.
  • Acknowledge with a simple, “Okay,” or an acknowledgment that it’s been said.
  • Ask for the reason if you don’t understand.
  • Really listen to what’s being said and remember to breathe. 
  • If it’s the right time and place to disagree, do so, or wait until later to have further discussion. 

Accepting “no” doesn’t necessarily mean the subject is closed.  If you’ve calmly received negative feedback at work, ask to set up a time when you can learn more about how you can improve.  After good use of the interim time, come prepared with your own ideas for improvement to discuss in the follow-up meeting.

In the case of personal situations when you are told “no,” understand that everyone needs boundaries.  Just as you protect yourself with personal boundaries, others do as well.  The “no” may not be all about you.

Ensuring Your “No” Can Be Accepted

Learning to gracefully and appropriately accept “no” for an answer is an etiquette-ful way to help others be more likely to say “yes” to future requests.

One way to pay it forward and help others accept your “no” is to deliver it respectfully and considerately.  You can do this by saying “yes” in some form before you say “no.”

  • If your next-door neighbor asks for help with a garage sale and you really don’t want to take time away from your day off, be appreciative that she asked you.
    “Cecilia, it’s nice of you to think I would be capable of this and thanks for asking.  I’m pounding out my entire set of lesson plans for next week so, unfortunately, I am going to have to decline.”
  • Your boss has given you a second big assignment and you know that there isn’t going to be time to get it done.
    “Mr. Johnson, of course I’m ready to take on the task you’ve given me, and I also have the Porter project deadline to meet.  Which one should be my focus to finish by Friday afternoon?”
  • A person you’ve had one date with takes the fun evening as a sign that you’re ready to go out with him again soon, but you really don’t want to go so fast.
    “John, thank you for a very nice time.  I’m flattered that you want to go out again soon, but I’m not ready to go forward so quickly right now.”  

Etiquette is about being sensitive to time, place and circumstances.  The skills we learn as children can be fine-tuned as we gain self-command and grow into the people we are meant to be.

It is necessary to say “no” sometimes.  Keep in mind that how you say it can determine how well it is accepted.  The word “decline” is a softer version of the word “no,” or you might substitute with an appropriate phrase.

But however you choose to say it, you have a right to your own decision.  And, from an etiquette standpoint, you are obligated to accept the decisions of other people.




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