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Mr. Manners: The Art Of Saying "No"

How do you say "no?"

Over dinner, a very good friend, Rajo Laurel, asked me, “Monchet, how do you politely say 'no?'” I have known Rajo for close to thirty years, and we are often taken for relatives. He is the epitome of graciousness, and in all these times, he has always been a beacon of gentility and kindness. But like all of us, he is bothered by the difficult task of saying "no."

I guess, many, if not all of us, have the same problem. How do we say "no" politely? That, my dear reader, is an art. We suffer from the “disease to please.” I have always been accused of obfuscating the issue, because I am a people pleaser. Like Rajo, we have three options: 1. He could say "yes" because he felt bad saying "no," and end up feeling miserable for saying "yes;" 2. He could say "no" and maybe feel bad about saying it; or 3. He could say "no" and not feel bad about saying it at all.

We are often caught up in options 1 and 2. Saying “no” is so difficult. We say "yes" because our parents taught us to be cordial and social. We say "yes" because we want to have friends. We say "yes" simply because it is expected of us. Oftentimes you might feel pressured because you do not want to disappoint or hurt someone’s feelings. Honestly, it was my sister Nong who always warned me that I need to be firm, and be real to myself.  Saying “no” will help me take control of my life and maintain some sanity. It’s about setting boundaries, right?

Truth be told, I struggle not giving in to requests for help of any kind. I always say that I am better off than most, so it’s just good karma. But as I get older, I don’t want to be led to do something I no longer feel comfortable doing. I have shunned events, and boxed myself from that fear of missing out. I have become afraid of seeing a lot of people. Saying “no” is a function of how you see yourself in the scheme of things. It is how you define yourself within your circle. Honestly, for the most part of my life, I simply said "yes" because I wanted my colleagues and my bosses to like me. I was a team player. But I may have also been a wuss.

So, what I have I learned, and continue to learn on how best to say "no?" To do so, you need to take stock of your convictions and your priorities. This way, the road to NO will not be met with a vague wimp of a "yes!"


Be honest and straightforward. This is very un-Filipino, but sometimes it is best to simply say, "I can’t do it." No "ifs," "buts," or "maybes." Think about your priorities and convictions before you reply. Life has become quite introspective, and we need to decide if we really want to commit the time to do something. If we do, be firm about doing it. 

I am in the fan business. I want as much sales as I can make, but if I simply can’t meet the order, I would say sorry, "I can’t do it". If you are willing to wait, I will be more that happy to do the order. When I was working, I would blindly take orders, and honestly regret why I took the task on when it was clearly one that weighed me down. Sometimes, doing what you are asked to do may not always be the best thing.

I have been approached for help to get jobs, facilitate visas, or even broker deals. And honestly, it was a test of patience and of integrity. I have often put my foot down. But it took me a while. I had a hard time breaking bad news because I didn’t want to disappoint. When I learned how to do that, after a lot of pain, I could say a firm "no."

Maralee McKee, in her column, "Manners Mentor," breaks down the five parts of saying "no:"


1.) Start with a compliment if one fits the situation.

2.) Give your answer.

3.) Say "thank you."

4.) Encourage the person.

5.) Change the subject or excuse yourself.


All the way through from step one to five, keep your demeanor light and, of course, smile. A smile says “no hard feelings.”

Now, is that hard to do? Most definitely, and it will take a lot of you. But if you say it right, you save a friendship, and you ease your own burden.


Put boundaries. Most often, we tend to have a hard time saying "no" because we haven't taken the time to evaluate relationships. When we truly understand the dynamics and our roles, we won't feel as worried about the consequences of saying "no." You'll realize that your relationship is solid and can withstand your saying "no."


Don’t lie about your reasons for saying "no." I am so guilty of this. I make up something to soften the blow. But honestly, it can cause much more hurt. Lying about your reasons for saying "no" could lead you to feeling guilty; therefore, do not lie about your reasons for turning down anybody’s request. They say do not owe other people a reason, so they don’t have the authority over your life to tell you what should or should not matter to you, it doesn’t work out that way. Filipinos are persistent, and find ways to get around the heart. It is hard to do, but heck, it has to be done. Now, if it’s a close friend and you feel comfortable saying the reason, then do so.


In the span of my 30-year career, I have had hard decisions to make. I have had to let people go. I have had to break the bad news to my superiors and to my spouse, and I just couldn’t muster the energy to do it. And the guilt of not saying the truth took its toll. But like all things with manners and civility, its course will be set by the sense of honor and dignity that we are all borne with.

As we spent the evening chatting with Rajo, he gave me much to think about. Saying "no" is the most difficult thing to do. It gnaws at our kindness core, and builds on a guilt that we most often slumber on.

So, as we wound down the evening, I said, just say "no" in a way that doesn’t burn bridges. If you can’t take on the client, write them a note explaining the reason, and you look forward to having them soon, or pencil them in for your next free time.

There is no harm in being truthful, and with that, the "no," will not be as hard.