Saying no seems simple in theory. Yet many of us regard the moment when we feel like saying it as a rather difficult, uncomfortable moment. Whether it's declining a professional learning opportunity, an invitation to take on some leadership at school, turning down a request from a colleague or setting personal boundaries with parents contacting you, the word no often seems to get stuck in our throats.


The impact of not saying no

Being a teacher, teacher trainer or educational manager can be an incredibly demanding job. Our job involves more than just teaching, training and organising the curriculum and staffing. One of the biggest challenges is that we are dealing with a wide variety of people who all have different priorities and place different demands on our resources available such as our time, empathy and patience!

Many of those working in education seem to have the tendency to prioritise the needs of others (Jennings, 2019). We tend to be in care mode and often want to keep others happy, and as a result we tend to withhold compassion towards ourselves. One of the reasons why seemingly find it easier to care for others instead of ourselves is that we are inherently social creatures.

In a context where we often find ourselves inundated with demands ranging from administrative tasks, managing others, speaking to students or parents, lesson preparation or simply trying to get someone to repair the photocopier or reset the WIFI, the reluctance to say no can significantly contribute towards a burnout. If we do not master the skill of saying no at times, it can lead to exhaustion since we risk depleting our mental, physical and emotional resources. Maybe we are not as well prepared as we hoped since we ran out of preparation time. Maybe we are not feeling in the right frame of mind to manage our own emotions when facing challenging behaviour since we didn’t have enough time to recharge our own emotional batteries. All of this affects not only our personal wellbeing but also how we feel about our job, our professional wellbeing and more importantly the quality of teaching and training.



Enabling self-compassionate and enhancing well-being

Learning to say no is intricately tied to the practice of self-compassion. Often, we hesitate to set boundaries or say no because we fear disappointing others or don’t want to be perceived as being difficult. However, self-compassion involves recognising and honouring our own needs and limitations, without judgment or self-criticism. Saying no with kindness if we feel we just do not have the time available or our emotional tank is empty, is self-acceptance. It acknowledges that our own personal well-being is important. In other words, that uncomfortable moment of saying no actually shows a sense of self-respect.

By prioritising self-compassion, when for example declining the opportunity to deliver a workshop for colleagues when you already feel stretched to the max, we enhance our own worth. Now, I am not saying that we should say no every time we get asked to do something demanding, outside our job description or outside our comfort zone, not at all! But we do need to be mindful that we do not ignore ourselves and have some respect for our own wellbeing. After all, we only have a finite amount of daily time and energy available!



Preserving time and energy for what matters to you!

Saying no can allow us to preserve some of our time and energy for activities that align with our values and really matter to us. Our time and energy are finite resources. Saying yes to one thing means automatically that you can’t give that time to something else and might need to say no to something else. Saying no allows us to give time and energy to activities and/or relationships that align with your priorities at that moment in time. Whilst in our modern world work-life balance might be challenging to achieve, saying no reinforces our agency in making sure that we have time for life. It communicates our limits at that moment. By prioritising and setting boundaries we can reduce the risk of burnout and remember saying no does not mean to be forever, next time you might truly want to say yes!


Why is being able to say no so hard?

Our brain is hard-wired to be connected to others, to be liked and accepted by others. The fear of saying no may be partly due to our tricky brain. Our ancestors who lived in the wild were threatened by wildlife or other groups and they needed their tribe for protection, to stay safe. Evolutionarily, humans have thrived in communities where cooperation and harmony were paramount for survival. Whilst in modern life a lot has changed, our brain is millions of years old and still has this powerful survival-instinct and a fear of rejection or social exclusion. Saying yes means pleasing a member of the tribe thus enhancing our chances to stay in the tribe and fight perceived threats together. Saying no, however, might lead the tribe to thinking we are selfish and we might no longer be in. So, our brain prefers to choose the safest option, which is saying yes, of course! instead of choosing for ourselves.



Saying no often triggers a fear of rejection or social exclusion, activating regions in the brain associated with negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety. We might worry that our manager might get annoyed with us and no longer want us to be part of the tribe. These simple worries can activate our brain’s threat-system (Gilbert, 2009). The brain’s aversion to saying no is deeply rooted in its ancient instincts to prioritise group cohesion and minimise potential risks to relationships. Interestingly, it does not distinguish between life-threatening situation with lions or tigers and imaginary threats like worries. Now, there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to disappoint others or not hurt anyone’s feelings but learning to say no strategically is key if we want to keep going, reduce the risk of burnout and keep enjoying teaching and training. So how can we grow the art of saying no?


Tips for saying no and growing the art of refusal

  • If you are caught off guard with a sudden request, stop and breathe before saying anything. This will give you some space to assess your feelings before responding. You could, if possible, say you will get back to them tomorrow which provides you an opportunity to think about how to word your refusal. Remember, you might feel uncomfortable when planning to saying no, that is normal. 
  • It might be a good idea to set clear expectations at work from the start. For example, communicate to your boss, colleagues or students’ parents at the start of the year what you are willing to do and what you simply can not commit to due to other commitments in your life, such as replying to WhatsApp messages on the weekend. When you then get asked a favour and need to say no, you can respectfully but firmly refer back to the boundaries you mentioned at the start of the year which can make a refusal easier.
  • As with everything it is a process. Saying no is not easy -and I’m not sure it will ever become easy since our brain is pre-programmed for acceptance- but we can get better at it! Start small with for instance, saying no to something simple, such as someone else packing your shopping or bringing your mail, and move on towards practising saying no in more significant situations. You will notice that the world keeps turning even when we have said it!
  • Trying to put the issue in perspective. If you say no, that just means the person asking you for a favour is the problem-owner again. And, this might not be what you want to hear, but most likely we are not the only person in the universe who can complete that task. They will have to simply ask someone else now and tomorrow the sun will rise again! If someone really cares about you, most likely they understand your reasons. So, allow yourself to say no, give a succinct reason - avoid vague excuses or beating around the bush- and let it go!
  • Words matter! Instead of saying no, we could start with saying something positive to soften the message. For example, I’m really honoured to be asked for this but right now… It might also soften the blow to provide them with an alternative: I’m so pleased you are so interested in your child’s learning journey. Now, I can’t answer calls on the weekend but what about… This demonstrates your willingness to help within your limitations without apologising since there really is no need for that unless you promised something and can’t deliver!


A final thought

Saying no is not only necessary at times but it can be a highly empowering experience. It's a declaration of self-worth and a commitment to honouring your time, energy and boundaries. I am fully aware that even though at times we badly want to say no, because we feel depleted and exhausted, our circumstances might dictate otherwise. All good, but make sure you do not fall into the trap of ignoring your own needs. It easily becomes a habit and a hard one to break, and yes, I speak from experience!

Now, please don’t think I have mastered the art of saying no! Not at all, but I do feel that it is getting a little easier the more I do it. And yes, I sometimes feel selfish, but then I think back to the wise words Desmond Tutu (2016) used: “be wise selfish, not foolish selfish”. Foolish selfishness means you just think only of yourself, don't care about others. Wise selfishness is when we take care of ourselves without hurting or harming others. Simply be kind to yourself! Remember, if we have no physical, mental of emotional resources left for ourselves how can we keep giving to our students, trainees and staff?

Have you got any tips that make saying ‘no’ that wee bit easier? Please, don’t say no…. because we are really looking forward to reading them!



Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. London: Constable and Robinson Ltd.

Jennings, P.A. (2019). The trauma-sensitive classroom. Building resilience with compassionate teaching.  W.W Norton & Company.

Tutu, D., Dalai Lama & Adams, D. (2016) The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.