Saying No Nicely: Setting Boundaries

saying no and setting boundaries

Mediators often describe themselves as breaking down walls and building bridges, and “Getting Past No“. So why do I think saying no is important?

Well, it because one of the most common causes of conflict is unclear boundaries. Another is broken promises or unfulfilled expectations. Many of these situations would not have occurred if people had said no nicely early in the relationship.

Boundaries aren’t bad

We create boundaries to keep us and our valuables safe. Think of the walls around your house. If a door is left open and someone unknown wanders in, we feel threatened. Even if it is someone we know,  we may still expect them to ask permission. We all have invisible trip wires around our personal space, which is show how close others can come without it being uncomfortable. This varies with culture and is often the cause of misinterpreted behaviour.

We don’t see the world the way it is, we see the world the way we are. Anais Nin

We assume that others share our values and our beliefs, and are hurt when they don’t seem to act in accordance with them. Comments I frequently hear about the other party are “Well she should have known I would be upset by that” or “Any reasonable person would have apologised”. To set a clear boundary, you have to specify what is acceptable and what isn’t. To do that you have to say no.

When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. Brené Brown

We don’t know what the other person doesn’t know about us. Frightened of rejection or conflict, we try and specify what we want rather than what we don’t or drop hints. In the end though, being clear about what is unacceptable as well as what is desired makes life easier for everyone.

Our fears trigger our flight fight or freeze response and we revert to animal behaviour…to find out your default mode, look here.

Saying No–It’s SIMPLE


First, manage your emotions and fears by telling yourself a different story. Instead of imagining rejection or loss, focus on why you want to say no. Be clear about the benefits of saying no, the risks of not speaking up and how it could improve the relationship. Ask yourself if you really want to say no. Spend some time working out what saying no will protect and what it will allow you to say yes to.  For example, saying no to overtime will protect your health and family time. It will allow you to say yes to reading the kids a bedtime story. Or saying no to going out so that you can work may protect the income you need.


Make it clear why you are saying no. Respect the other person, speak kindly and prepare them for what you are going to say.


Don’t waffle or skirt the issue. Be honest and as clear as you can, without hurting them unnecessarily. Contrasting can sometimes clarify things. For example,” I like going out with you, but I don’t like going to the disco.”


Check they’ve understood. Give them time to process it. Let them have their say.


Listen to their side of the story, reminding yourself of your reasons for saying no. You may decide that no is the wrong answer, but be wary if this happens too much!

Explain and End

Sometimes, you need to explain what no means and the consequences. Don’t justify or excuse,  stay objective and polite. Make it clear that no means no, and any exceptions. Then end the conversation respectfully.  “I am not going to change my mind on this. I respect your view. Is there some way forward that works for both of us?”

You always have a choice

Sometimes realising that you have a choice changes the way you look at things. Want to say no, but feel the consequences are too extreme?  Remember you can say no, it’s just that you don’t want to suffer the consequences. Often thinking this way can cause your ideas to shift, or you can come up with another alternative.

For example, when an elderly relative asks me to take them somewhere, often I would like to do something else instead. Previously, I would want to say no and then felt guilty and said to myself, I didn’t have a choice. Feeling pressured into saying yes, I would be resentful and unhappy. Now I tell myself, “I do have a choice. Yes, I  could say no, but I value helping and being kind. I love the person. So I choose to help.”

It makes a big difference. Try it and see.

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