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How To Master The Art of Saying No

Saying no is one of the most important skills that a person can master. Imagine yourself as a ship in the ocean. Your yes and your no are like the winds that direct your sails. Every time we say yes or no we adjust our path. For our entire lives our interests will be at odds with the interests of others. Friends, family, co-workers, bosses, clients, salesmen, etc. It is our job to become our own advocate to make sure we keep our ship on our own path, not anyone else's. The longer you let your ship go down the wrong path, the harder it is to correct course.

1. Define What You Want

The first step is learning what you should to say yes or no to. And in order to do that you have to learn about yourself.

You have to know what you want so that you can see when you're not getting it. You have to know your values so you can see when others don't have them.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if we're doing something because we truly want to, or because we're being influenced by our peers. A helpful way to sort this out is through a simple writing exercise. You can do this any way you like, on your computer or on a note pad.

What's important is that you start writing about the person you want to be and the future you want to have. Here are the most important questions to answer:

  • What kind of hobbies and habits do you want for yourself?

  • What habits do you want to avoid?

  • What are your values, and what do you not value?

  • What are your goals for your future? What will it take to get there?

  • What things make you happy, and what makes you unhappy?

  • Who do you enjoy being around, and who makes you feel uncomfortable in any way?

There is no right or wrong way to to this, just make sure that your answers are 100% honest and uncompromised by the influence of others. Every persons answers to these questions will be different and they will also change as your journey unfolds.

Once you have completed your exercise, analyze your responses and look for where there are contradictions in your life. For instance, if you wrote down 'going to bed early' as a habit you want, and 'drinking' as a habit you want to avoid, but your friends keep convincing you to stay out late partying, you've identified an area of your life that you could start exercising your no muscle.

Another example is if you wrote down 'saving money to buy a car', but you have a hard time saying no to the expensive brunches and shopping sprees your friends enjoy, or saying no when someone asks you to lend them money, you've identified another area that you can start saying no.

On mine I noticed that the themes of healthy living kept popping up. This is clearly a top value of mine. Say I were still a high school student and my friends went to buy pizza every day for lunch, I would have a good opportunity to start saying no and instead packing my own healthy lunch.

These may not seem like big deals, but if you struggle with being a people pleaser these are the places you want to start drawing your lines and sticking to them.

2. Look For Opportunities to Start Saying No

Now that you have spent some time writing and thinking about what you want, and identifying what you don't want, it's time to start looking for any opportunity you can to say 'No'.

Remember the movie Yes Man? Where Jim Carrey's closed minded and boring character 'Carl' commits himself to saying yes to absolutely everything at a self help summit? Think of this as the reverse, the No Woman movie, and you're the shining star.

Of course, the goal isn't to become closed minded and boring like Jim Carrey pre-Tony Robbins intervention. 'Yes' is as important a tool as 'no'. Yes is your sword and no is your shield. Yes opens the door, and no puts up a wall. The goal is to become masters of these tools, using each appropriately when they are in our best interest.

The problem is that so many girls and women have the exact opposite problem of Carl. His closed mindedness and over indulgence in saying 'No' lead to his unhappiness, whereas it is the fear of saying no and the overindulgence of 'Yes' that leads to so many people's unhappiness, and worse, getting taken advantage of. We need to have a balance that comes from knowing ourselves and being true to ourselves.

So, if you are someone that has a bigger problem saying no to things that you don't really want to do, your job is to start looking for any opportunity to work your no muscle. Anything here counts, and it's easiest to start small. It could be saying no to an invitation that you just don't feel like going to, saying no to a date with someone you know you don't like, or even saying no to the cashier when they ask 'and what's your email'?

It's never too small an opportunity to get more confident at saying no!

If you stick with the No Woman experiment, you'll find that opportunities to say no to things you don't want to do are everywhere. Once you've started becoming comfortable saying no to the little things, you'll be much more prepared to say no to the tougher requests that come with more peer pressure, more guilt, and perhaps more consequences.

3. Stop Explaining Yourself

Never give an excuse or a reason when you say no (real or fake). It only gives that person an opportunity to argue with you, and more confidence that they can convince you.

It also implies that you're doing something wrong just by saying no. The truth is that you don't owe anyone anything. There is no need to apologize or 'explain yourself' for turning down a request or saying no to something you don't want to do. But for some reason, we have this inherent sense of guilt for doing so. And unfortunately this guilt and reluctance to say no so as not to hurt feelings is something that is manipulated by all sorts of people from salesmen to family members to abusers.

Every time you try to explain yourself, or worse- make up a lie to 'get out' of saying yes, you subconsciously tells your brain that you're doing something wrong for saying no, and that not wanting to do something is not a good enough reason. This is exactly the psychological pattern that we want to break.

You don't need any reason beyond simply not wanting to. When people interrogate your reasons why, they're only looking for an opportunity to tear it down. We have to teach people that when we say no, we mean it.

4. Practice Being Assertive

The next step is preparing yourself for the more difficult shut downs. When your first, and maybe even your second no isn't taken seriously. When they don't respect your boundaries and won't stop pressuring you. Or when standing up for yourself against a bully or predator.

Not only do you need to be able to say no, but to say no firmly enough that it's taken seriously. This comes down to how you say it.

How to practice:

With your parents, kids, or friends, stand in a circle and take turns giving each other made up insults or pushy requests. The point is for it to be confrontational, putting the person in a position where they're forced to stand up for themselves. When you are on the receiving end, your job is to stand up for yourself or say no to the request assertively. It doesn't matter what you say, but how you say it.

  • Look them directly in the eye

  • stand tall and confident

  • use your hands openly and point at them if you feel like it

  • stand in a strong stance

  • Don't back down, break eye contact, or soften your tone until you're done

  • Finish by walking away confidently, or wait until they back down first

We practice this in every Girls Who Fight Camp, and it can actually be quite fun. Another exercise we do at Girls Who Fight is have the girls practice 'stare downs'. Just like in the UFC or boxing, opponents walk from opposite sides of the room and face off, staring each other down. This is a mental battle which can reveal a lot about which fighter is more confident. Here are some keys to winning the stare down:

  • stare at them directly in the eyes, never be the first to break eye contact

  • be as tall and take up as much space as possible

  • put your mean face on!

  • hands up, show your fists

These games come with a lot of laughter and nervous energy, but they are an effective way of getting used to confrontations in a safe environment. Even practicing maintaining serious eye contact and a confident posture is so powerful, because if you can't maintain eye contact, chances are you're not going to stand up for yourselves.

5. Develop Real Confidence (Learn To Fight)

Confidence is essential to being able to stand up for yourself in the hardest of times. But it's not something you can just 'be'. Parents always ask how they can help their kids develop confidence. The only answer that I'm aware of requires putting yourself through sufficient adversity. There seems to be no way around it.

You have to see in one way or another that you're capable of going through very tough things without giving up. The good thing is that this can absolutely be learned by anyone, but the catch is that you have to go through the hard things first. You can't skip this part.

Courage comes after the test, not before.

'So you're saying we should put ourselves and our kids though hard things intentionally?'

Yes, 100%. Most people who grow up in poverty, danger, or war develop thick skin naturally. But for those of us who are fortunate enough to live comfortably, we have to find ways to simulate our own adversity. The best way I know to accomplish this is though sports because they challenge you both physically and mentally.

You learn to be comfortable in your physicality and body, and you're forced to keep pushing your limits, building resilience and mental toughness. The ultimate way to develop the type of confidence that helps you stand up for yourself is martial arts.

It's impossible to learn how to fight without gaining confidence.

Martial arts specifically help people learn to develop and control their capacity for aggression. I know aggression sounds like a bad word. But it's what is necessary to be able to face conflict with confidence. Aggression is a tool, just like 'yes' and 'no'. It's not something we want to use all the time and we need control over it. But it is a necessary part of your tool kit to navigate the world, especially in situations of self defense.

If someone attacks you you're forced to get aggressive to defend yourself whether you like it or not. It's much better if you know how to do so competently. Simply put, if you're not capable of being aggressive, you'll be a victim to anyone who is. And unfortunately, there's no shortage of people in the world who have no problem using aggression to abuse others.

In addition, when you gain confidence through learning how to fight and stand up for yourself, it naturally shows through how you carry yourself. This outward expression of confidence is the exact thing that repels those who look for people to take advantage of.

Therefore it serves a double purpose, the first being a deterrent to bullies and predators, and the second being a reliable preparation to stand up to them. My advice is to sign up for a martial art based on a combat sport, like kickboxing, muay thai, Brazilian jiu jitsu, wrestling, boxing, MMA, or a mix. Commit six months to it, and I guarantee that you or your child will develop a back bone and get better at being able to say no.

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Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight. Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives.

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