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Assertiveness Tip to Say No More Effectively

Assertiveness is something that many of my clients struggle with. Lack of communicating assertively, can get my clients into all kinds of dilemmas, from saying yes to dates they don't want to go on, to taking on obligations and job duties  that they can't fulfill. This translates into exhaustion, stress and even resentment. The behavior resulting from a lack of assertiveness takes its toll on relationships, work performance and can even 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 bigger steps to make  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 feel and ask for what you want. This is especially true if you were discouraged, and in some cases, punished if you did it in your family. 

So when  I came across an article in the New York Times , that stated you can say no and practice assertiveness more effectively just by changing " I can't" to "I don't" I was pretty excited about using it to help my clients and share it here.

Practicing this small step can really help you and give you the confidence to start being more assertive. 

Why this assertiveness tip works

Shifts in language have a strong effect on our feelings thoughts and behaviors. Multiple studies have shown in the case of using the words " I can't versus I don't " people shift from a place of 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 language shifts impact  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 which you regularly have trouble saying no to. and then practicing them in the situations that are the lease difficult.

This is like an exposure hierarchy. So if you have trouble saying no to your boss, you would practice on a lower level first saying no to someone that causes you less anxiety, like a magazine salesman, or a waitress asking if you would like dessert with dinner.  I like that idea alot, as I think we all have individualized situations which pose the most trouble. You  might make a list of those phrases you find to be helpful and carry them around with you. 


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.  

1. Say No "I don't purchase X" ( least anxiety provoking thing)

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

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

4. Say no I don't want to accept any planning committee positions to collegue

5. Say 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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