The power of no


Why do we find it so hard to say what we mean? Finding it hard to say no isn’t the only issue some of us face: it can be part of a broader hesitancy about expressing the full range of our emotions with honesty and openness. Most of us carry a certain amount of emotional baggage, often stemming from our early childhood experiences, and this affects the way we form attachments with other people. Psychologists frequently divide attachment styles into three broad definitions:

Anxious: An anxious attachment style is common in people whose early needs were met unpredictably. Anxious people may be so focused on being accepted by others that they deprioritise their own needs and lose confidence in their own choices. Instead of saying no clearly, they may find refuge in ‘I don’t mind – what would you prefer?’, which ends up putting a lot of strain on a relationship.

Avoidant: Avoidant people learned from an early age that others cannot be trusted and may hurt them. People with avoidant attachment styles are unwilling to risk being vulnerable in front of others, and learn to suppress their ‘noes’ instead of seeking help and support when they need it.

Secure: People with a secure attachment style are able to trust others and can express intimacy without feeling stressed or insecure. In a trusting relationship, both partners are able to say and receive the word ‘no’ without endangering their long-term connection. They respect each other’s autonomy, and give each other the space they need to grow and thrive.

It isn’t just our early years that influence us, but also the patterns of behaviour we pick up from other people throughout our lives, including friends and partners. By analysing our own attachment style, we can approach conversations with more self-awareness. This will enable our transactions to be calmer and more productive, even when they’re difficult and involve saying no.



In a word: yes. Although it can be hard for anyone of any gender to say no, women as a group face an extra challenge. Throughout childhood, girls are praised for playing nicely and getting on well with one another, while boys receive more praise for winning than for being kind and gentle. Girls who express strong opinions – including saying no – are often criticised for being bossy or stroppy, words that are rarely applied to boys.

When we become adults, the patterns we learned in childhood remain influential. Women often struggle to have their ‘noes’ heard and understood, facing problems such as being talked over in meetings and told they’re getting emotional if they express any form of disagreement. In contrast, men who say no are often praised for being strong and ‘taking no prisoners’.

For women, saying no carries the risk of being seen as overly negative; but if we’re going to achieve our goals, all of us need to build up our strength and resilience, and bring our ‘no’ power into our daily lives.



‘I think it’s best if we all just try to get along’ – Yes, getting along with each other is great, but if someone tells you to sacrifice your opinion in favour of general harmony, their own motivation is unlikely to be very positive. By staying calm and treating others with respect when you express disagreement, you’ll come out of the conversation without ending or even damaging your relationship with the people around you.

‘Let’s have a bit more positivity, shall we?’ – Sometimes saying no is actually the positive choice. If someone is proposing a course of action that is risky, poorly thought out, in bad taste, or just plain wrong, according to your understanding, then saying no is the best thing for you to do. It may result in a more positive outcome for everyone than if you’d gone along with the general consensus.


Visualise a successful no

Prepare yourself for a successful ‘no’ by using this simple visualisation process

1. Imagine yourself in a place where you feel happy and calm. It could be somewhere you know well or an imaginary landscape.

2. Take a few deep, calming breaths and clear your mind of other thoughts and worries.

3. Now think about the case you’re going to make: go into some detail here and say your reasons out loud. By doing this, you will convince yourself, as well as practice stating your reasons calmly. You can write down ideas if it helps you to marshal your thoughts.

4. Sitting or standing with a straight back and your shoulders relaxed, picture yourself answering the other person’s statements in an even, confident tone.

5. Finally, see yourself walking away from the conversation with the outcome you desire.

Picture yourself playing an active, assured role before you begin a tricky conversation will help you come out of it knowing that you’ve kept calm and achieved your aims.

Extract from The Power of No: Take Back Control and Find Time for You by Abbie Headon (Ilex Press, €12.90 approx.), out now

Catherine Devane