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Setting Personal Boundaries - How to Tell People "No"

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

Setting personal boundaries. Woman of colour.

We've all been there - someone asks us to do something we really don't want to do, whether it's a co-worker who needs help on a project outside of our scope, a friend who wants us to go to an event we're not interested in, or a family member who needs us to do them a favour. It can be hard to say no, especially when we don't want to hurt someone's feelings or be perceived as rude. But learning how to set personal boundaries is crucial to maintaining our sanity and having a healthy work-life balance. Keep reading for some tips on how to say "no" without being a jerk.

Tip #1 - Be assertive, not aggressive.

There's a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. When you're assertive, you're confident and clear in what you're saying. You're not afraid to state your opinions or needs, but you do so in a respectful way. On the other hand, being aggressive means that you steamroll over other people's opinions and needs in order to get what you want. Obviously, we want to avoid coming across as aggressive when we're telling someone "no."

One way to do this is by using "I" statements. For example, instead of saying "You need to stop asking me for favours," try "I need you to respect my time and stop asking me for favours." Another tip is to use active voice instead of passive voice. For example, don't say "I can't come because I have prior engagements," say "I'm sorry, but I already have plans." Using active voice shows that you're taking control of the situation and standing up for yourself - two things that will come across as very assertive.

Tip #2 - Offer an alternative solution.

Sometimes people just need a little push in the right direction, and offering an alternative solution is a great way to do that while still saying "no." For example, if a co-worker asks you to stay late to help them with a project that's due tomorrow, you could say something like "I can't stay late tonight, but I'm happy to come in early tomorrow morning so we can finish it together." Or if your boss asks you to take on a last-minute request that will require working over the weekend, try saying "I can't work this weekend, but I can put in some extra hours during the week so it'll be done by the deadline." Offering an alternative solution shows that you're willing to be flexible and accommodating, but that you also have boundaries that need to be respected.

"Using active voice shows that you're taking control of the situation and standing up for yourself - two things that will come across as very assertive."

Tip #3 - Just say no (politely).

Sometimes the best solution is also the simplest one. If you don't want to do something, sometimes all you need to do is just say no - politely. For example, if your boss asks you take on an extra project at work even though you're already stretched thin, try saying something like "Thank you for thinking of me for this project, but I'm going to have to say no." Or if your mother asks you call her more often even though you talked last week and she knows you're busy with work, try saying something like "Mum, I love talking with you but I just can't commit to calling once a week right now." Politely declining requests is perfectly acceptable - after all, it's your life and you should be ableto live it how you want!


It's okay to say no! Learning howto set personal boundaries is an important part of maintaining a healthy work/life balance. The next time someone asks you to do something you don't want to door don't have time for, try using some of the tips above. And if all else fails...just say no!

Check out our online course on Assertive Communication to help you say what you need.

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