Help! I can’t say no

Our new columnist, award-winning coach Kim Morgan, helps a lifelong people-pleaser to become more assertive


Help! I can’t say no

Coaching session 1: Aiming to please

Judith’s managing director contacted me to request some urgent coaching for her. My diary was heavily booked so I cancelled an important personal appointment and freed up some time. I met them both to discuss the focus of the coaching sessions.

Judith was a well-regarded manager in a nursing home – although her lack of assertiveness had always been an issue. And now it had got her into serious difficulties. Judith’s inability to say ‘no’ to a pushy sales-person had resulted in her spending thousands of pounds on unwanted equipment for the nursing home. This had serious implications both for the organisation and for Judith.

Her MD was clear that this should be a disciplinary issue but because Judith was such a valued employee, the company wanted to offer her some coaching to try to increase her assertiveness, rather than going down the formal disciplinary route.

Judith and I had some time together and she confessed to being a lifelong people-pleaser. She avoided conflict at all costs, hated upsetting people, found it difficult to say ‘no’, tended to let people walk all over her and agreed to things she didn’t want to do. After this latest incident with the equipment-buying, she felt extremely guilty and anxious about her future at work.

I gave Judith some homework to do ahead of our next meeting:

  • Make a list of all the ways people-pleasing affects your life?
  • When and with whom are you not a people-pleaser?
  • What do you believe will happen if you say ‘no’?

Coaching session 2: The right to refuse

My supervisor put his head in his hands as I told him about the case. He pointed out that I’d cancelled a personal appointment to accommodate the client and agreed to a really low fee because the MD had negotiated hard. ‘Who’s the biggest people-pleaser in the room?’ he mused. Coaches need to model the behaviours they’re encouraging others to adopt. ‘Do what you’re asking your client to do and you’ll be a better coach,’ he said.

Meanwhile, completing the homework had enabled Judith to see that people-pleasing was detrimental to her life, her relationships, and her career. She swung from being cross with herself to laughing at herself. ‘They all call me Judy at work but my name is Judith and I don’t like Judy. In 13 years, I’ve never said anything – what is the matter with me?’ 

She had grown up in an environment where anger and assertiveness were discouraged and learned to believe saying ‘no’ would hurt or upset people and that others’ needs were more important than her own. She couldn’t think of any situation in which she didn’t please others above herself. We came up with some alternative beliefs about saying ‘no’:

  • Others have the right to ask and I have the right to refuse a request.
  • When saying ‘no’, I’m refusing the request and not the person.

Judith agreed to experiment by saying ‘no’ to little things, such as being offered a cup of tea. It’s important to start small to build confidence. She also decided on a bigger goal: to let everyone know that she likes to be called Judith, not Judy.

Coaching session 3: No limits

Judith (not Judy) had a new lease of life. She had been successfully saying ‘no’ without excessive apology or explanations. It surprised her that when she said ‘no’ most people just accepted it. She’d learned that some people used emotional blackmail to try to persuade her to do what they wanted, but she could now recognise and combat the manipulative tactics they used.

Change can occur when we realise that our behaviour is detrimental to us. Judith had been pleasing people for years, but she had underestimated the impact of it on her life. She had even joked about being a pushover. Now that it had led to disastrous consequences for her and her employer, she realised she needed to change. With the support and understanding
of her organisation, she had found the motivation to make positive changes and was feeling the benefits of having more personal power and confidence.
For more from Kim, go to

Do it yourself

Try these exercises to help you overcome people-pleasing tendencies

Your ‘Inner Toddler’

Think about toddlers and how easily they say ‘no!’ They are in touch with their needs and feelings, moment by moment. We were all toddlers once. We were all born assertive.

If you have spent a lot of time putting the needs of others before your own, you may have lost sight of what you need and what really matters to you. You might find yourself answering ‘I don’t mind’ or ‘You decide’ or ‘It doesn’t matter to me’ when you are trying to make plans with friends or family, for example.

You can’t ask for what you want if you don’t really know what you want. To find out what you want and need, get in touch with your Inner Toddler and ask yourself:

  • What would I like to eat today?
  • What new activity would I like to try?
  • What do I need to feel happy and fulfilled?
  • How do I feel right now? (In my body and in my emotions)
  • Complete this sentence ‘I want…’
  • Complete this sentence ‘I don’t want…’
  • If you dare, shout out ‘no’ at the top of your voice!

Assertiveness Techniques

Assertiveness is about the right to be treated with equal respect. It’s about learning what is appropriate and fair, and balancing your own rights, wants and needs with those of others.

Here are some techniques to help you practice assertiveness:

  • Trust your initial gut feeling – being assertive is about developing the habit of noticing your feelings and responses.
  • Don’t explain or pad excessively when refusing a request or saying ‘no’.
  • Consider what it says about the other person if they start bullying you or persuading you to change your mind.
  • Buy yourself some time and don’t respond immediately with a knee-jerk ‘yes’.
  • Be aware of your body language. Ensure you are not smiling or using a conciliatory tone of voice which could dilute your assertive words and message.

Kim Morgan is managing director of Barefoot Coaching and co-author of The Coach’s Casebook

Photograph: iStock