Assertiveness Tip to Say No More Effectively


Assertiveness is something that many of my clients struggle with. Failure to communicate assertively gets my clients in all kinds of dilemmas. They say yes to dates they don't want to go on and take on obligations and job duties that they can't fulfill. Unclear communication can translate into exhaustion, stress, and even resentment. Lack of assertiveness takes its toll on relationships, work performance, and can also contribute to depression and anxiety.

Assertive communication includes clear communication, reflecting your thoughts and feelings with I statements, setting boundaries, and saying no.

Research now suggests that small changes can often give us the confidence and motivation we need to tackle the more significant steps to make a big change. Learning the new habit of being assertive can be difficult. The smaller we can start, the better. The easier it is to implement, the more likely we can begin building that habit and sustaining it. 

Assertiveness isn't easy to teach, and feeling frustrated and defeated is common. It can be hard to suddenly begin to set boundaries, say how you think or feel, and ask for what you want. If you tried to express your feelings in your family and it was not encouraged, it may be hard for you to be assertive. You may be afraid to learn and try these new skills.

I recently came across an article in the New York Times that gave a tip that I found helpful. It highlighted some research about using the language of " I can't" versus  "I don't." I was pretty excited about using it to help my clients and share it here.  Practicing this small step can help you and give you the confidence to start being more assertive. 

Learn more about assertiveness here 

Learn more about communication here

Why this assertiveness tip works

Shifts in language have a substantial effect on our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

 Multiple studies have shown that using the words " I can't" versus" I don't " people shift from feeling out of control and victimized to feeling in control and confident. Many studies have focused on individual goal-directed behaviors and the impact of language on this. 

Here are a few:

Assertiveness Tip: Examples

The impact of the change in language  is relevant not only when talking to yourself, but also others. In this case more assertively saying no.

How might this help you if you have trouble saying no? Compare these responses to get an idea of how they differ

If you have trouble saying no to salesman. 

  1. " I don't apply for new  credit cards.
  2. " I can't today today, thank you"

As you can see from the dialog one is more assertive. The salesman is less likely to continue to bother you.

If you have trouble saying no to requests for you time. Here are some examples.

Using don't

"I don't volunteer during the work week." 

"I don't make plans during the work week"

Using Can't

"I want to , but I can't make  time"

"I can't because I am busy. "

Assertiveness Tip: Anchor Phrases

The Times article suggested practicing coming up with anchor phrases for issues that you regularly have trouble saying no to then practicing them in the situations that are the least difficult. An example of an anchor phrase might be "I don't go out for drinks during the work week." or "I don't have any more time to take on any new obligations."

I like that idea a lot, as I think we all have individualized situations that pose the most trouble. You might make a list of those phrases you find helpful and carry them around with you. 


An exposure hierarchy is when you start with doing the difficult thing and move on to the more difficult thing. Working through a hierarchy consists of practicing something at the least level of difficulty until you gain more mastery and gradually proceeding to a higher level of difficulty. If you have trouble saying no to your boss first practice saying no to someone that causes you less anxiety.  For example, you might try to say no to a salesperson or dessert in a restaurant.

Below is an example of how you might use a this idea to practice saying no. This would be tailored to your specific anxiety level for each particular activity. 

1. Practice saying No "I don't purchase X" out loud to yourself   ( least anxiety provoking thing)

2. Writing No I don't volunteer on school days in email to school

3. Saying No I don't  have extra money for any family activities out loud  to sister

4. Writing No I don't want to accept any planning committee positions to colleague

5. Saying No to mother about request or boss ( most anxiety provoking thing)

 Anon, (2018). [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Feb. 2018

Patrick, V., & Hagtvedt, H. (2012). “I Don’t” versus “I Can’t”: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(2), 371-381. doi:10.1086/663212

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