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What We Do When We Want to Say “No”

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Many of us have a hard time saying “No”. And we have a lot of strategies that we employ when we are put in the position of wanting or needing to say “No”, but we want to avoid doing so. Some of us avoid situations or people who we feel might put us in this position, limiting our activities or movements. Some of us laugh or try to make a joke out of the situation, or toss a word salad to distract from what we’re actually saying.

Some people are so conditioned that saying “No” is unacceptable that they do something my co-author Marcia Baczynski calls “the habitual yes”. “Many people automatically default to saying yes to just about any request. Before there’s even a chance to digest what the question was, that "Yes" is flying out of their mouth."

The habitual yes is a condition in which we find ourselves routinely saying yes right away when asked for things or asked to do things, sometimes even before we fully know what the request is. This kind of habit is part of a people pleasing defense mechanism and it takes time and practice to change. Struggling with a habitual yes can make it harder to know when we are actually a yes.

My strategy to avoid saying the dreaded “No” was always to say “Maybe”. Then I would walk away stressed about the fact that I still had to either say no or do the thing I didn’t want to do. It would weigh heavily on me, and I would be very creative in coming up with excuses that involved me being obligated to do some onerous task. That way when I explained why I was a “No” the person who had asked would have to have sympathy for me. This behavior was exhausting and demoralizing! I talk more about this in my blog piece What Does “Maybe” Really Mean?, and you can read that here.

But why do so many of us have a hard time saying “No”? Most people don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings or let others down. Often we fear that a conflict may result, or that there may be retaliation. Some of us have been raised to believe that it is our job to take care of everyone around us, or that our needs are not as important as what others want. Perhaps we want others to like us and include us, and fear that they won’t if we say “No”.

Whatever the reason is, for many of us saying “No” is a frightening and intimidating act that we will do almost anything to avoid.

To be clear, sometimes it’s unsafe to say no, as the threat of retaliation is obvious, and sometimes it’s impossible to say no because we are having a freeze or fawn autonomic response. I’ll talk about these situations more in future blogs, but for now I’m addressing having a hard time saying no in relatively safe situations. I talk about this more in my blog piece What Does the Freeze Response Have to do With Consent?, and you can read that here.

Many times people have a hard time saying no even in very low stakes situations. I’ve explained what I teach to a big burly male construction worker, and had him respond with, “Ugh, I just said yes to something the other day that I wanted to say no to! Right after, I was thinking to myself - why I didn’t say no!” This issue with feeling challenges around saying no can be influenced by societal conditioning, gendered socialization, systemic inequity, media messaging, and past trauma, and it is also a common human experience.

So, if it’s hard to say no in low stakes situations, what about intense, high stakes situations, like when we’re having intimate touch with someone for the first time? Understandably it becomes much much harder. We usually don’t have a lot of examples of how to communicate during sexual encounters, and things often become very non verbal with many feelings and unexpressed thoughts coming up rapidly. An internal dialogue when no one feels comfortable to verbalize might look something like this: “Oh that feels good. But not that. Maybe if I move this way they’ll stop doing that. Ok that feels better. Oh, they want to try that. Do I want to try that? I’m not sure, but Ok, I guess we’re doing this.”

This gets especially tricky when someone’s yes gradually shifts to a no because of changing conditions, actions, or feelings, but the person feels like they aren’t allowed to change their mind. Even more commonly, they may be noticing that their feelings are changing, but they’re not fully conscious of it because they are so used to pushing their feelings down and tolerating things in an effort to please or assuage others. I talk more about this in my blog piece The Insidious Slide From Willing to Tolerating, and you can read that here.

Consent is a thing given from moment to moment and when it comes to your bodily autonomy, you can always change your mind. But many people have learned from media and societal messaging that they don’t have that right to personal agency, or how to notice and respond to their changing feelings. Feelings of obligation and the confusion of shifting wants can also make it hard to say no. This is something I’ll talk about more in a future blog as well.

So, what do we do when we want to say “No” but we don’t feel like we can? We might say maybe. We might deflect and change the topic. We might hem and haw and hope the other person guesses what we mean. We may laugh and make a joke. We may freeze. We may decide it’s too scary to leave our room. We may just tolerate what is happening because it’s so hard to say no, and then feel angry and resentful afterwards.

Understanding how difficult it can be for people to say no is foundational to learning the MOST important consent skill - hearing no graciously. I’ll address this key consent skill in my next blog post. When we learn to hear no graciously we can help those around us to feel more comfortable expressing their true boundaries, even within intense, high stakes situations.

Saying “No” confidently and clearly is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. In the Consent Culture Intro workshop, featured in our upcoming book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook For Educators, we share fun and interactive exercises that help students to experience and practice saying “No” in a safer environment. Practicing saying no while the stakes are still low is an essential aspect of creating consent.

To learn more about the workshop and the book, visit

Order the book here!

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