Saying No: Interpersonal Effectiveness DBT Skill

Being able to say no in your relationships is just as important as communicating wants and needs, and being able to have a good conversation. It's just as important as effective listening. Saying no with assertiveness is a crucial survival skill and should be one of the first things parents allow their children to learn and utilize. It is important for both parties in any given relationship as it is never fun to feel resentful from not being able to say no or be on the receiving end of resent. Without this powerful interpersonal effectiveness skill, you are missing a vital ingredient to your relationships that will leave them sour with you pulling faces.

The ability to say no is a vital part of healthy communication. Without it, any relationship is dangerous--it's like getting in a car with a gas pedal and no brakes. You have no control over what people do to you.

--The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook

Of course, it takes courage to say no. Especially when a relationship matters to you. Saying the words are simple but mustering the needed courage is no easy feat. What you need is practice and trust in the other person. If you are in a situation where saying no feels like a life sentence or the person gets threatened then you might want to evaluate just how healthy the relationship is, and maybe even leave it.

There is also a method to the art of saying no. It is simple on paper as there are only two steps, but once again don't forget that practice makes perfect.

The Art of Saying No While Maintaining Your Relationships

STEP ONE: Validate the other person's needs or desires.

  • This takes prefacing the "no" with a clear validation of the person's wishes. A good phrase to remember is "I understand."

Here are some examples:

  • "I know that you're eager to go to the theme park but I'd rather do it at a later time."

  • "I understand that moving in the new year means a lot to you, but it's just not in my budget right now."

  • "I understand horror is your favorite genre, but I was hoping for a relaxed night."

STEP TWO: State a clear preference not to do it.

  • This involves a bit more explaining. This sweetens the rejection a bit by offering up other ideas or reasons why you're saying no.

Here are some examples:

  • "Black is an elegant color, but I'd prefer the walls some kind of pastel for this room."

  • "I would love to help, but I'd prefer to save now since I did help out last time."

  • "I know you want to make out, but I'd prefer we go slower and talk more on our dates."

  • "Sorry, I'd rather not tonight."

  • "I see why you'd want to go later, but I'm not comfortable staying up so late after my bedtime."

Key words to take away are "I'd prefer," "I'm not comfortable", and"I'd rather."


Think of at least 5 present or future scenarios where you need to put your foot down and use the power of the assertive "no." Make a hierarchy, similar to the exposure therapy for anxiety we discussed in an earlier post. List the easiest ones first, starting with the one you find the least intimidating and finishing with the one that's going to require the most courage. For instance:

  1. Setting boundaries with mom about not discussing a triggering subject whenever she visits.

  2. Telling the neighbor you'd rather not give out your cigarettes all the time.

  3. Refusing to speak negatively about a co-worker with another work acquaintance.

  4. Refusing the landlord's entry when she pops up without 24-hour notice.

  5. Asking your boss to skip over you for the random night shifts.

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