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How to assert ourselves without burning relationship bridges: Reasons why people find it difficult to say no to others

Updated on March 25, 2013
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I have to admit having had a problem saying “no” to others, whether it was a work or with members of the family I feared offending because of social distance. I would often take on more projects that I could chew and work through the night with my amused husband asking when I would ever get any sleep. As the only music teacher in the school where I worked, I would be inundated with projects and concerts and have to mix audio recordings throughout the night because I could not bring myself to reject colleagues who asked. Nor could I reject relatives who asked me to play the piano for them at weddings, even when I was very busy. I found myself doing much more than I could manage. All of us, I am sure, can relate to these experiences. We are sometimes the only personnel equipped with a certain skill at work and end up having to cover many bases or are afraid to offend family members by our “no.”


Tips for saying no

Why we must master the art of the “no”

Mastering the art of the “no” is important because there are occasions when we will have our kindness taken for granted. It is natural for people to “push off” their stress onto others so it is not healthy to be in that position. It can breed unnecessary hatred and frustration on all accounts.

It is also important to realize that it is not necessarily selfish to say no. We may have very valid reasons for not being able to take on a certain request, such as having too many work obligations that cannot be fulfilled properly if another is added on the platter.

Saying no also allows a person the freedom to engage in something new. Say that you’re always in charge of organizing the annual company get together. If you free yourself from the task, it allows others to have a hand at it as well as yourself to break new ground by organizing something else for a change.


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Why do people find it difficult to say no?

Societal Norms

It may be in the culture of the society one has grown up with to say ‘yes’ to others as it is good manners. In certain societies and cultures, saying no is deemed aggressive as an unwritten rule. Children in these cultures may be brought up to oblige others as a form of politeness.

Family Values

On a relative point, people may be brought up in families where one or more parents have brought them up to say “yes” to others and oblige them whenever possible. This actually applies to many of us because we are told that helping others is good manners. However it is when one says “yes,” at the wrong time that things become slightly disjointed.

Unwillingness to shed a pleasing persona that makes you popular

In certain social networks people become extraordinarily popular, and rightly so, for helping others when in need. However, social and other situations for that person may become difficult to manage when everyone has a favor to ask.

Fear of hurting others

Being the caring people that we naturally are, we are all afraid of hurting people when we reject them and consequently lose them as friends. That pressure to oblige makes us naturally want to say “yes.”

Fear of conflict

It is true that there are quarrelsome people in this world, so if we say no, we do end up offending them at some point. It is this fear that causes us to say yes all the time.

Fear of retribution

There is an innate fear that retribution will befall us if we do not provide help in some way. I can personally attest to the overpowering fear of having “pay back”. I was afraid that no one would help me out if I said that I had no time to help them with one project or another. I would also be afraid of being seen as “proud’ or “selfish”. That made me take on school projects that eliminated much needed sleep.

Being labeled a trouble maker at work

It is not surprising that bosses do not like people to say no or reject them when they put in requests for tasks to be done. After all, they do pay the salary of their workers. Hence, workers end up being labeled as recalcitrants if they say no to any task request.

Fear of lost opportunities

It is difficult to say no to a boss when we are afraid of opportunities not coming our way. After all, we might not be handed further assignments if we say that we cannot do the ones at hand.

Fear of being abandoned

It is a natural consequence that others would leave us alone when we reject them. After all, after having said “no” it is a definite possibility that they will not approach us any further. Hence we are afraid of cutting off links with that person or that it may cause others to leave us alone as well.

With all these fears in mind, how should we say no in the most gracious way possible? Saying “no” is indeed an art not for the faint hearted.


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When to say no

There are times when we have to say “no” to people whether or not they or ourselves like it. Believe it or not, there is a place for a ‘no’.

Weigh the stress ratio

As stated in the examples above, there are times when we simply cannot afford the time to say “yes”. If a matter gives us too much stress, it is good to decline, at least for a little while.

Prioritize

A good tip is to prioritize. Many do this efficiently already; if the task can be completed at a later time, leave it till then and complete the more important things at hand.

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How should we say no?

Saying “no” without burning bridges is indeed an art. Here are some hopefully useful things that one can bear in mind.

Standing firm

We may find ourselves having to stand firm with our “nos” because others may pressure on us when they are rejected. We may have to reject them several times as they use the force of persuasion. When we know we cannot manage their insistent requests, it is the time to remain firm with our “no.”

Offer logical, honest and reasonable reasons for the rejection

It is important to offer honest reasons for why we cannot accede to the requests of others.

People are by and large, lovely and reasonable, so if we offer sincere and reasonable reasons for rejection they do understand us. We should, of course, help whenever we can!


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Saying No without Saying No

Saying “no” gently - some nice phrases!

I hope to offer some nice phrases for turning people down gently when we are in a tight moment or it is simply a bad time. Do try them as a way of saying no without burning any bridges!!

“I can’t commit to this as I have other things on hand at the moment.”

If you are too busy, this is a good phrase to have in mind. It indicates that the person should hold off on this as well as other requests until the platter has been cleared. It is good to share with the other party what we are working on so that they can understand our concerns better.

“Now’s not a good time to do this. Could we reconnect?”

Again, this is a good way of rejecting without rejecting. It tells the person that we are not pushing them off. It simply shows that we are a little busy at the moment and do want the opportunity to help them out at a an available time.

“I’d love to do this but...”

This is a good way of letting the other party know that his ideas are not bad ones, and tells him that you are not rejecting him out of dislike. It is also a good way of disagreeing agreeably if your ideas are not in sync.

“Let me think about it.”

This phrase is a “maybe” rather than a straight “no”. Again, it tells the other party that you are not rejecting them out of dislike. There are times when ideas or opportunities come our way but we have simply no time to address them. This phrase leaves the door open to future possibilities.

“This does not meet my needs now but I will bear it in mind for later.”

For those in managerial positions, this is a lovely phrase that tells another person that the door is not closed on them and their ideas. It says that rejection does not mean that their ideas are being devalued.

“I’m not the best person for the job. Why don’t you try “Y”?

If you feel that another person can make a better contribution than yourself in a certain area, this is a good way to say no and offer help at the same time. It ensures that the person does not end up in dead end.

“No, I can’t.”

Why not be honest? Have no fear of the barriers to saying no honestly. In my experience, people do appreciate that and come back to you because they respect and value your honesty.

There are many ways to say “no” gracefully. It is all a matter of practice!

Copyright (C) by Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin

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    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Yes, we should say no when we have to! Thanks, Shutri.

    • shruti sheshadri profile image

      shruti sheshadri 4 years ago from Bangalore, India

      A great hub! it is so important for us to use this tactic in daily life. thank you for the insight, voted up:)

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Nell, I hope they'll help, because saying no can be so hard!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Rebecca!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      It's an important skill, both for ourselves and the people we are saying no to! Thanks for sharing, lanablackmoor!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      It is a little word that can be the most difficult to say, Mary! Thanks for sharing!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      This is so me, I am terrible at saying no! I un and ah and scratch and then say yes! why oh why do I do it? great hub michelle, I will come back in future to get your ideas! lol!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for these good thoughts. Prioritizing is definitely something I need to work on!

    • lanablackmoor profile image

      lanablackmoor 4 years ago from New England

      Awesome article, thank you for sharing this. I had a very, very hard time learning to say no, particularly during college. I spent my entire life trying to please and say yes to just about everyone, only to find that I didn't get credit for it anyway the one or two times I had no choice but to say no. It is a very important skill to learn, and I really wish I had found your Hub back then. It would have done me a world of good as I'm sure it will for others. Voted up!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      Well done my friend. Such a little word that is so difficult to say.

      You've given some good suggestions I'm sure many will be able to use...I'm still working on it ;)

      Voted up, useful, and interesting. Shared too.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Sasha, thanks for commenting. It's the 'teach a man to fish" philosophy....when we teach a man to fish, he'll get more help than if we do it for him! So it helps. They find solutions and end up feeling fulfilled! Thanks for coming by!

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 4 years ago from USA

      It is hard to say no, but I have come to realize that saying no actually helps the other person, because they might try things themselves, find someone else who can do them, or come up with a completely new idea.

      As for asking someone to do something with me or for me, I would much rather have someone say no to me, so that I can think of alternatives than say Let me think about it" because I feel like I have to wait while they consider them.

      You've laid out some great reasons to say no, and gentle ways to say it. Voted up.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Glad it's been useful, moonlake!! It's really difficult to say no in certain situations....I hope that the phrases below will help you turn them down gracefully. Hope it helps....thanks for the visit!!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 years ago from America

      I know many people that don't know how to say no and I'm one of them. Sometimes I say yes and all I do is worry about it because I didn't want to say yes. I am learning to say no. Enjoyed your hub and voted up.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Healthylife 2, I am so glad you've stopped by!! Yes, the way we communicate our No is actually the most important part of all. If we say it with a less aggressive tone, our reactions will more likely be accepted. I'm not perfect with it either, but like you, have learned too! Thanks for the read!!

    • healthylife2 profile image

      Healthy Life 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      I found this hub useful and was definitely in need of polite ways to say no. I find the tone of my voice helps also. When I sound hesitant people feel they can still persuade me. I have learned not to be afraid of the reaction of others although I'm still far from perfect with this. Voted up and shared!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Please feel welcome to share it on your blog, To Business, and I"m honored. That's how burn out starts....we don't say no until it's too late. I always look forward to you coming by!! Thank you!!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      This is a very useful reminder that there are time when it is ok to say no, especially us women.

      We believe we must be all things to everyone until we're burnt out. I love this, and would like to share on my blog.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Yes, Ann, always look forward to you stopping by! Glad that it's been useful. Always believe in prioritizing...gets the job done! Thanks, Ann.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Tim,

      All of us are innately very nice people, and that's the problem...our niceness can be a little taken for granted at times. Glad that you've found this useful, and I really appreciate you coming by!

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 5 years ago from Orange, Texas

      This a very useful hub. As you mentioned prioritizing really helps. The more important things can be done that way.

      Voted up and well done.

    • timthechirpinbyrd profile image

      timthechirpinbyrd 5 years ago from Newport News, VA

      Great advice. I have a habit of spreading myself thin when I constantly say "Yes" to everything. This really puts things in perspective. Thank you.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      These words are too true, Carly. Thanks for the lovely comment!! I empathize with your position too, and can fully see why saying no can be hard. True that a "no" in circumstances of lower priority will give room for a "yes" elsewhere!! Great to connect, and will pop by!

    • CarlySullens profile image

      CarlySullens 5 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      Wonderfully written, with kindness and permission to be able to set those personal boundaries. As a woman, who is adopted, I do say yes way more than no, because what you noted above.

      I am now learning the power of saying no to xyz, so I can say Yes to me and my family. I am learning when saying no somewhere opens up a yes of our choice.

      Voted up and shared!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Wow, a lovely comment, Thundermama!! Glad that this hub helps!! Yep, I too find the phrases useful. Helps to say "no" without really saying "no" ! Thanks for coming by!

    • Thundermama profile image

      Catherine Taylor 5 years ago from Canada

      Great advice that I plan on putting into practice. I am just learning to say "no," at the ripe old age of 39 and am finding it terrifying, but necessary. Thanks to youI have some new phrases in my arsenal. Super hub!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      LOL, Kim! Actually, he'd planned his second Simple Life installment a while before(looks like he likes to think ahead), so we absolutely didn't know that we'd end up writing about the same thing! Glad though, that our views match up. It's good to help people, and we should never stop doing that. Just stop when people take it for granted or when your own platter's too full. Thanks for popping by, my dear!

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 5 years ago

      This goes hand in hand with billybuc's most recent hub.. have you two been talking ^_^ Truly a brilliant hub. For myself, I say yes or offer my help much more than I should. My husband tries to stop me when he can but I'm just too much of a people pleaser. Seeing people happy makes me happy. Basing my own self worth or happiness on others is definitely not healthy so I'm trying to take my husband, yours and bill's advice and say no. There are great tips here that I can use, thank you for sharing.

      Voted up, useful and shared!!

      I like your new profile pic too! So cute ^_^

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      IntegrityYes 5 years ago

      You are very welcome, Michelle.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi, Yes, always good to see you!!! Thanks for coming by and the fantastic support!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks so much for the lovely comment, Maggs, and I'm so glad this hit home. I absolutely agree with everything you've said.....and sadly these are the reasons that people don't want to pay things forward as well, because we all need a little reciprocation now and then for all our efforts. We become drained if we keep giving without a little pat on the back once in a while. Thanks for everything, and coming by!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      cam8510, thanks for coming by! Glad it's useful!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      nanderson500, thanks so much!! True, there are definitely ways of saying no that are more effective than others.....because they communicate different messages. Thanks for the read!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      mmsu, thanks for the support and share!! I'm glad it hit a chord there, and that it's been useful. Coming by to read your hubs too!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Ruchira, indeed. It really takes one little step at a time!! Not at all easy to say the word "no". Let's all practice it! Thanks for coming by, and am so glad you've enjoyed this!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Definitely, Mary. It's a small but one of the toughest words to say!! Thanks for the vote and the share, and I'll be stopping by!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Josh, I'm so glad that it was helpful and hit home. We need to say No at the right times to avoid unnecessary stress and friction! Thanks for coming by, my friend!

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      IntegrityYes 5 years ago

      That is another fantastic one, Michelle.

    • maggs224 profile image

      maggs224 5 years ago from Sunny Spain

      What a great hub that tackles a problem that many of us have had at one time or another.

      When I was younger, I found it almost impossible to say no to other people for all the reasons you mention in this hub.

      Like many people I found that always saying yes had the opposite affect to the one I wanted.

      Saying yes all the time to people didn't make them like me more nor when I did what they asked, did they appreciate what it cost me to do the things they wanted me to do for them.

      Often people would not appreciate what I had done or the time and effort that I had to put in to get it done, instead they would moan about something being not quite how they wanted it to be (not that they had said how they wanted it in the first place) or changing their minds and wanting even more things done.

      The more I did, the more stuff was given me to do and the more I was taken for granted.

      The funny thing is once I mastered the art of saying no, and only doing things for people when I wanted to, I found that I was liked and appreciated far more than when I was everybody's door mat.

      I think that this is a very useful and interesting hub, so well written and jam packed with practical advice and I will vote it up and hit the relevant buttons on my way out.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Well done. I seem to need a reminder along these lines now and then. Thanks.

    • nanderson500 profile image

      nanderson500 5 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Good ideas. There are definitely ways of saying no that are more effective than others.

    • mmsu profile image

      mmsu 5 years ago from Pakistan

      Loved this hub!!Great idea for!!Interesting read throughout!I my-self find it very difficult to say no in front of people's faces!Voted up and shared!

    • Ruchira profile image

      Ruchira 5 years ago from United States

      I got to admit, michaele I could not say "NO" Would take on a lot more responsibilities than I could and that would affect my health.

      Currently, I do say NO but there is this guilty feeling inside me, which I learning to ignore. Baby steps dear :)

      beautiful, resourceful and interesting hub with voted up!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 5 years ago from Florida

      The word, "No" is one of the hardest words to say to anyone. At my age, I don't hesitate to say that word. I wasn't always like that. It takes a lot of practice!

      Great Hub. I voted it UP and will share. Mary

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Michelle,

      Like I said, I was really looking forward to this hub! It is so beneficial and it hits home for so many people! You can see that by looking at the high quality comments you have already received! We say yes, because we fear rejection. But, in the long run, learning when and how to say no will relieve a lot of stress. Excellent job here, very thought provoking! Awesome Michelle!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      stillwaters, all the best to you on standing firm. Thankfully, a large majority of people are reasonable and do know when you need to say "no," so they don't make a huge fuss about it. It's even worse when you say yes without thinking....you may end up not being able to fulfill promises made to them and that hurts relationships even further. Thanks for coming by!

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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Patty, you'll be an ace at saying know once you practice more often! True. There are people who will just simply take advantage of your kindness. The "no' is for these kinds of people! Thanks, my dear, for the votes and the share, and for coming by!

    • stillwaters707 profile image

      stillwaters707 5 years ago from Texas

      This is such a needed topic. Standing firm is my biggest challenge. I can't do a lot of things I used to do in the past. I hate conflict, but I'll have to learn to face that when I say no. The consequences are worse when I say yes to too much.

    • Patty Kenyon profile image

      Patty Kenyon 5 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

      Michelle, AWESOME tips!!!! I am still just learning how to say "No" when I am feeling overwhelmed. Often times in the past, I notice that some people love to take advantage of others that are willing to give their time to go above and beyond to help them, but will do nothing to return the favor.

      Voted Up, Useful, Interesting, Awesome, and Shared!!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Mark!! Glad that it's useful!! Thanks for dropping by!

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      Mark G Weller 5 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

      Great information and tips Michelle!

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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Many thanks Bill!! Indeed we do need to set limits,and I"m glad you're mentioning it in your Living Simple series tomorrow, because we really need to learn. Thanks for coming by, and I'll be popping by for a read of Living Simple!!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Bev has a horrible time saying no....me, not so much! It is healthy to say no, and it is necessary.... I mention this in my new living simple hub for tomorrow....we need to set limits. Great job!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      HI Kelly!! Oh yes. You bet. The more you give, the more tends to be taken, and that's when you just have to give the big NO. Especially when we just don't have the time to fit everything in. Glad this helps! Thanks for coming by!!

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      Kelly Umphenour 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      It's really tricky to say NO sometimes. I volunteered at my local elementary school and I noticed over a four year period that the more you say YES the more you will be asked for crazy stuff! It's sad but yeah I had to learn to be better about just saying NO! I am sorry I don't have time! Yah! Lol

      Up and excellent...I'ma start practicing this art better today:)

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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks for sharing this, Janine! It's harder to say no to your own relatives because you see them so often!! Thanks for coming by and the shares, my dear!

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 5 years ago from New York, New York

      Michelle, great job on this one about when to say "no" and why. I recently found myself in this position with my cousin who kept texting me to take my girls out with her kids during their nap time. Her kids are older and she doesn't have to worry about nap time, but if my kids don't get some sort of nap, they are beasts so to speak. Seriously, any other time would be fine, but not nap time, I try to keep them on a schedule, because it is quite frankly easier for me. Anyway, I had to be firm and felt, but for my sanity I just had to say "no"! Have of course voted up, shared and tweeted too!!

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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Jools, thanks for coming by!! Oh, I can certainly relate to that one. All the stress can certainly swallow you up. And when you finally say no, everyone gives you this "why are you doing this is something wrong" look. Let's say no when we need to!! Appreciate you, Jools.

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      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Michelle, great hub. I left my last job because I was disappearing under all of the stress, some of which was of my own making because I never said 'No' - I realise now that if you keep saying 'Yes' people will always expect it and they get quite disgruntled when you finally say 'No' - I got wise towards the end of the job so at least from now on I am prepared to say No.

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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thankfully, you don't have the problem dghbrh! I believe though that you're a person people respect when you say no because you come across as a caring person who does not say no with dislike in her heart. Thanks for coming by, my dear.

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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Annie, you've got that exactly right. Saying that you are not free to commit right now actually gains you more respect than trundling along with the flow and not being able to fulfill the commitment; if you can't commit at least it frees them up to look for an alternative source on time!! Thanks so much for coming by!

    • dghbrh profile image

      deergha 5 years ago from ...... a place beyond now and beyond here !!!

      A very common problem people finds is to say 'no' way......without hurting the sentiment of the other person in question. You have provided some very cool tips for that here. I liked that specially though i personally do not have the problem. I always prefer to be honest, like you just said. very useful hub..all votes up and sharing:-)

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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Richard, you're a hoot as usual. LOL!. Charlie Chan was one of my favorite detectives, actually. Though I"m sure you've accepted each other's marriage Nos through the 32 loving years!! Thanks for coming by and the votes!

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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Shruti, thanks for coming by and being a friend on Facebook as well! Glad to connect with you. It is indeed time to say no to things we cannot or really do not want to do,in the politest way possible. Appreciate you lots!

    • Fennelseed profile image

      Annie Fenn 5 years ago from Australia

      Excellent advice, I relate to this problem, having been a yes person for far too long. I really think the people that matter in your life will still be there and will actually respect you more when you are honest and say "Sorry I can't commit to this right now". And it doesn't mean saying no all the time, but by being honest when it really doesn't suit you, frees you for the things that matter to YOU and is very uplifting for one's self esteem!!! Great hub, my votes to you Midget and sharing.

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      Rich 5 years ago from Kentucky

      Michelle -

      In Charlie Chan Voice: "Would if could, can't so won't, so sorry!" -said with a smile, and followed by "I'd love to but....." (like you mentioned)

      In 32 years of marriage, I've been told "no" so many times, it doesn't bother me to say it to someone else for a change!

      Great Hub! Up & Useful & Interesting

    • shruti sheshadri profile image

      shruti sheshadri 5 years ago from Bangalore, India

      A really useful hub michelle! :)

      Yes, it is time to take a stand and say NO to things we dont want to do! Great choice of topic! Glad to read :)

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Saying "No" to others can be a really difficult thing to do. Here are some tips and phrases for saying "No" without saying No and burning the bridges!