How to Say “No”: A Lesson in Compassion

December 12, 2016

In May of 2016, two world-class climbers attempted to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen. One, Cory Richards, ended up on top. The other, Adrian Ballinger, decided to turn back.

Rewind back to 2011: Ballinger was the first person to summit three 8,000-meter peaks in only three weeks (Everest twice and Lhotse once) and had long dreamed of reaching the top of Everest without oxygen. But about turning back on Everest—what might have been the hardest, and best, decision of his life—he says:

So really, at the final decision, there was no decision. There was no question. I have always known this life means more to me than standing on top of Everest. I had to come down. I wasn’t thinking about Cory, I wasn’t thinking about success and failure, or my future career. It was just, “I don’t want to die up here.”


Fortunately, not many decisions are life and death, but, unfortunately, feeling comfortable with saying “no” is rare. As kids, we’re programmed to please and taught to try hard. Saying “no” challenges these early lessons and is usually accompanied by guilt. It takes courage and kindness—both to ourselves and others—to say “no” and feel good about it, even with the simplest of decisions—a party invite, favor, loan or being asked to participate in an event.

The Fundamentals of Bowing Out Gracefully

1. Know your boundaries. We have to make decisions with regard for our own well-being and happiness by recognizing our boundaries and priorities. (If you haven’t seen it, be sure to watch Brené Brown discuss the importance of boundaries.) Know your boundaries, and respect yourself enough to stick to them.

2. Be respectful. If the answer to a request is “no,” make sure that’s understood quickly from the get go. You can say no respectfully, but saying, “I’ll get back to you” is not helpful, and even confusing, if your real answer is “no.”

3. You don’t need an excuse. If you don’t want to do something, it’s OK to say, “I can’t make it” or “I have other plans.” You might not have something on the calendar, but “other plans” doesn’t have to mean a major social event. If it’s preferable to stay home and cozy up with a good book, write in your journal or listen to music, that’s a reasonable “other plan.”

4. Offer an alternative. If saying “no” feels like leaving someone else in a bind, try to come up with an alternative. Be creative, but don’t throw a friend or colleague under the bus to save yourself. Perhaps there are solutions that could work for both of you. You might need to better understand why they are asking you in the first place. Start along the lines of “I’m not the right person for this project, but let’s figure something out” or “I’m not sure I’m able to help you; tell me more about what you need.”

5. Be empathetic. Demonstrate that you hear, understand and are honored to be included and then say, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that” or “I appreciate the offer, but that’s just not my thing.”

Boundaries are a part of what makes us different as individuals. We all set our own, so enforce them with confidence and with compassion—for yourself and for others.