How to say ‘no’ to close friends and family

Saying ‘no’ is not rude but a healthy way to set necessary boundaries

I recently came across an article titled, ‘Teach your children how to say no’, and was struck by it. As kids, we were always taught to be polite, especially, to elders and people with authority. At school, we even sang a song that went... “‘Please’, ‘sorry’, ‘thank you’ are words we would like to hear.”

As an adult, this politeness has stuck. It’s reached a point where when I bump into a door, my instinctive reaction is not “ouch” but “I’m so sorry”. I’m sure many would identify. We’ve all been raised to be polite and obliging. But this comes with some downsides. Most of the time, we find ourselves unable to say ‘no’ to friends and family. We feel it makes us selfish, insensitive, and unreliable.

But that’s not entirely true. Sometimes, you are doing everyone — especially yourself — a huge favour by saying ‘no’. It’s the opposite of being selfish when you decline to do something you are genuinely incapable of doing.

Ask yourself: How many times have I been there for them? If the answer is ‘almost always’, you are okay. But also understand that saying ‘no’ is just a way for you to set healthy boundaries. We’re all human and have limited bandwidth. It’s important to set limits to help ourselves.

So, how do you say ‘no’ without feeling like you’ve let people down?


You aren’t being rude when you say ‘no’ to someone. All you need to do is be more conscious of how to frame your answer. A blunt “no, I can’t,” will rub people the wrong way. However, if you say: “That sounds great but I already have plans I cannot cancel”, people are less likely to feel offended.

If they still take offence, remember one thing, you are not responsible for how people react to things. You are only responsible for what you say. If you have said ‘no’ with sensitivity, you can walk away with a clear conscience.


Thank them for thinking of you before you say ‘no’. Express that though you may not be able to show up (for whatever reason), you are grateful that the person you are talking to thought of including you in their activities.


You can’t make it on Tuesday? Suggest showing up Friday. Perhaps, you can’t make it for a party on Saturday, but you could suggest helping them prepare for it. This way, people don’t think you are deliberately avoiding them.

When you find yourself fumbling to say ‘no’, remind yourself that you need to be there for yourself first. Saying ‘no’ is not selfish, it is an essential part of self-care.


Start with “I’m sorry, I can’t be there, I’d have loved to but...” When you start with a sorry, you are being polite yet assertive because you are letting your position be clear. There’s no room for misunderstanding.
If you’re a beginner, i.e., you’ve never said ‘no’ before to anyone, start with saying: “Let me think about it, I have some other commitments on that day”. Take your time, and then say ‘no’. This gives you time to get over the anxiety of declining someone’s request, which comes in quite handy.

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