Saying “no” is one of the hardest assertiveness skills to learn, but also the most important boundary to put in place. Manipulators and abusers use every abuse tactic to get you to do what they want, and resisting that can be incredibly difficult, especially as everyone (including you) is used to you saying “yes”. When you first start saying no, you will feel very uncomfortable – which they will spot – and they’ll pile on the pressure to break your new-found resistance. Their behaviour and treatment of you is likely to get worse before it gets better, but don’t forget you have the right to say no, and the right to not feel bad about it. Other people will have to get used to it.
See Where to Get Help (UK), or google “help with domestic violence” in the country where you live.
The “I’m sorry” is included for our particularly British style of courtesy, and is also not obligatory! In these cases it’s only intended to be an “expression of sorrow” (i.e. a recognition of the other person’s feelings), not an apology. In fact there will be some situations where it is better to not use the word “sorry” at all, particularly if a manipulator is going to twist it to sound like you should be apologising, and use that to make you feel guilty.
There are various different ways of saying “no” without coming across as passive (meek and easy to break) or aggressive (which gives an abuser an excuse to be aggressive back): the Explanative No, the Alternative No, the Validating No, the Another-time No, the Straight No, the Repetitive No. Which one you use will depend on the situation, whether or not you feel the other person deserves an explanation, or whether or not you have an alternative solution to offer, and how much resistance you meet. All these “nos” are reasonable responses, and any one of them will be respected by a reasonable person. So if, for example, you offer an Explaining or Validating No first, followed by an Alternative No or Another-time No, and the other person is still not accepting it, move straight to the Straight No, quickly followed by the Repetitive No.
It’s important that you try not to react to any of the tactics used against you: try to keep your tone even, your face friendly, and your body language relaxed. The other person will be looking for signs of defensiveness (passive-stance) or anger/irritation/frustration (aggressive-stance), which will tell them you are no longer feeling assertive. Work hard to spot their tactics, not rise to their provocation, and keep you and your voice balanced.
For each type of “no” there are three example scenarios: a “friend” wanting to borrow a book, a partner wanting to watch a film you don’t like, and a relative wanting you to visit at the weekend. Remember, while it’s courteous to explain why you’re saying no, particularly if the request is important to the other person, you are not obliged to justify your reasons – the reasonable person won’t need you to, and the manipulator will only be looking for things to argue with, so s/he can wear down your resistance. I recommend only using each type of “no” once (maximum twice) in any given situation.
What is most important with all these techniques is that you use the word “no”. Don’t be tempted to just say, “Sorry, but I don’t want to do that…” or “sorry, how about another time?” The word “no” is clear and unambiguous, and although abusers will argue with it, it’s harder to argue with “no” than with “I’d rather not do that if you don’t mind.”
The Explaining No
This offers a straight explanation – the reason why you’re saying no – followed by a clear statement of your intent/wishes. None of these refusals are unreasonable.
Friend: I’d like to borrow this book if that’s okay.
You: No, I’m sorry. That was my grandmother’s book, so I don’t lend it out.
Partner: Let’s watch [whatever] this evening.
You: No, I’m sorry. I really don’t like that film, so I don’t want to watch it.
Relative: We were thinking how nice it would be for you to visit at the weekend.
You: No, I’m sorry. The kids have lots of homework to do this weekend, so we won’t come.
Notice how all the other people’s questions are not actually questions, but statements, as though your opinion is not actually needed. Manipulative people frequently seek your agreement in this way, because it makes it even harder for you to say no. Just answer as though it was a question anyway, as it makes it clear you know you have a choice.
The Validating No
This is when you validate the other person’s feelings – which helps warn off any potential accusation of you not appreciating their needs – followed by a repeat of your stance.
Friend: Oh, go on. I’ll bring it straight back.
You: No, I’m sorry. I know you’d take good care of it, but I never lend out that book.
Partner: Oh, go on. We haven’t sat and watched a film together for ages.
You: No, I’m sorry. I know it’s your favourite film, but I want to watch something we both like.
Relative: But Aunty Joyce will be here, and she hasn’t seen the children for months.
You: No, I’m sorry, I know you love it when we’re all together, but not this weekend.
The Alternative No
This is where you repeat your stance, then give the other person an alternative, which makes it easier for them to accept the “no”, because they don’t lose face or look so rejected, and still get something.
Friend: But I really want to borrow it…
You: No, I’m sorry, I don’t lend out that book. How about this one instead?
Partner: But I really want to watch it with you…
You: No, I’m sorry. I don’t want to see it. How about [something you both like] instead?
Relative: But we all really want to see you…
You: No, I’m sorry. The kids are doing homework, though Joyce is welcome to pop in for a cup of tea.
The Another-Time No
Like the alternative No, this offers another option, and again helps the other person to feel less rejected and more likely to accept your decision.
Friend: I only want to look something up…
If you never lend out that particular book, you mustn’t suggest you might lend it in the future. Instead move on to the Straight No.
Partner: We only need to watch the first half…
You: No, I’m sorry. How about you watch it tomorrow, while I’m out.
Relative: It won’t hurt them to have a nice day out…
You: No, I’m sorry. We won’t come this weekend. How about the weekend after?
Notice also how the use of words, like “I don’t lend that book,” rather than “I don’t want to lend it” (which suggests you could be persuaded), or “I’m not going to watch it,” rather than “I’d rather not watch it,” or “we won’t be coming,” rather than “we can’t come” (to which the reply would be “well, you could if you wanted to”). These assertive words all make it clear you’ve made up your mind, and are not open to negotiation.
The Straight No
This is where you just say “no”, without apology or explanation – though you can laugh/giggle/chuckle as you say it, if you think that will help to keep things light-hearted. But the answer is “no” and that’s that. This always feels like the harshest “no”, but if all other “nos” have been ignored so far, this one is usually all you need to see off everyone but the most determined persuader. It is particularly good for abusers and manipulators, as it doesn’t give them anything to argue with.
Friend: Oh my god, I can’t believe you won’t lend out a lousy book. What’s the matter with you?
You: I’m still saying no.
Partner: How can you say that, when we’re always watching what you want?
You: I’m still saying no.
Relative: Everybody else wants you to come. It’s always about you, isn’t it?
You: I’m still saying no.
Notice how lies (which they’ll call “exaggeration” when challenged), and insinuation, start to slip into their appeals. In reality, there is nothing the matter with you, it’s very unlikely (living with this partner) that you always watch what you want, and – with relatives like that – it’s probably rarely about you. Also, notice they are now asking direct questions, in an attempt to make you feel defensive, and distract you from your stance. Ignore the questions and stick to your “no”.
The Repetitive No
This is the “no” to save until last, for the most determined manipulator: the manipulative parent who’s been used to you caving in all your life, the abusive partner, the toxic friend or in-law. Once they start getting nasty, and making you feel bullied, there’s no reasoning with them any longer; so instead, just revert to your first (or part of your first) Explaining No.
Friend: It’s just a book for [expletive]’s sake. Be a shame if it got nicked. You’d wish you’d lent it then.
You: ~shrug~ I’m not lending it out.
Partner: We’re watching it whether you like it or not, and you’ll just have to suffer you miserable bitch.
You: ~shrug~ I’m not going to watch it with you.
Relative: Well, I’ll be sure to remember this next time you want something from me.
You: ~shrug~ We’re not coming.
Then just keep repeating this exact line until the other person gives up, which they will eventually, whether by storming out, blanking you, or slamming the phone down. Then you will probably be “punished,” e.g. with “the silent treatment,” while they wait for you to apologise for standing up for yourself. It’s important you don’t say sorry, otherwise it will be even harder to say no again. (Look out for “How Not to Say Sorry” – coming soon.) If you continue to be assertive, they will probably give up completely in the end, and start being nice again (see also: The Cycle of Abuse, which comes into play here).
- the reasonable phase: friendly tone of voice; a smile; relaxed body language. Designed to make you feel like you couldn’t possibly say no to such “niceness”.
- the begging phase: whingeing tone; hurt expression; defensive body-language. Designed to make you feel guilty/unreasonable for saying no.
- the belittling phase (there might be a moment’s silence as this starts): pitch of voice rises; disdainful look (scrunched-up nose, lifting chin, looking away); might fold their arms, or lean against something like they don’t care. Designed to make you feel that you’re a worthless friend/partner/daughter for saying no.
- the bullying phase: raised voice or speaking through clenched teeth; tense facial muscles and possibly wide eyes/flared nose; tight body language (possibly clenched fists); they might step towards you or loom over you. Designed to intimidate you, and scare you into saying yes.
- back to the reasonable phase, and the cycle starts again. Depending on how determined they are, they might go round the loop several times – perhaps missing out one phase or another, or changing the order of tactics; but once they’ve been round the loop once, just stick to the Repetitive No, and they will quickly realise they’re getting nowhere.
In reality, you’re very unlikely to have to be so resistant about lending a book or watching a film, but there are times – like when Auntie Joyce is coming to visit (or family holidays, someone’s birthday, or something you’ve already been made to feel guilty/fussy about, and especially if your autism is involved), it can be very hard to keep saying no – so choose your battles carefully, and start with the issues you have complete control over – in these examples: no one can make you lend a book, you can walk out of the lounge, no one can force you into your car. The most important thing to remember is it’s vital you don’t give in, otherwise the other person will try even harder to persuade you next time, because they expect your resistance to break eventually.
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