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To encourage students to say ‘no’ when they need to.

by Helen Bryant

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To encourage students to say ‘no’ when they need to.

Preparation and materials

  • None.


  1. Today I want to talk about a very small word, but one that seems to have enormous implications and meanings. This is the word ‘No’. The word has its origins in twelfth-century English. It's a variation of 'na', meaning 'never, not at all'.
  2. I wonder if you can remember the last time that you agreed to do something that you didn’t really want to do. ‘Of course I’ll come to your party’, ‘Of course you can copy my homework’, ‘Of course I can help you with your problems’, ‘Of course I can tell Mrs Barber why you haven’t done your maths homework.’ What you really wanted to say in those situations was, ‘No, I can’t help’, ‘No I don’t want to come to your party because I know that someone will be there I don’t like’ and ‘No, do your own homework. Mine took me ages.’
  3. It seems very hard, though, to actually say ‘No’. So, instead, you say, ‘Yes, OK, no problem’ and smile because you cannot say ‘No’ to people.
  4. I wonder how easy it is, in fact, to say ‘No’. Small children do it all the time without any concerns at all! They shake their heads or throw a tantrum or very simply just say ‘No’ and that is the end of that. They don’t find themselves doing something that they don’t want to do, they just refuse and carry on with what they do want to do. How nice that would be!
  5. At some point between being a small person and becoming a big person the word ‘No’ becomes harder and harder to say. I wonder if this is because the word itself actually seems to be linked with rejection and not being allowed to do something. For example ‘No! Don’t do that’, ‘No you can’t have those’ and so the list goes on. This negativity around the word makes it very hard to use it in situations when, really, you should say ‘No’. For example, when you have far too much work to do to take on anything else, when the task you are being asked to do is too ambitious or when someone is asking you to do something that you feel is wrong. We don’t want the person we should say it to to feel rejected and let down by us, so we don’t say it.
  6. So, let’s look at how we could say ‘No’ without using this word. Try using these types of ‘No’s.

    The reflecting 'No'. To do this, you acknowledge the content and feeling of the request, then you add the assertive refusal at the end. For example, ‘I know you want to talk to me about using my homework, but I can't do that today.’

    The reasoned 'No' involves giving a brief and genuine reason for a refusal without opening yourself up to further negotiation. An example might be, ‘I can't come to your party because I have to go out with my parents that evening.’

    The rain check 'No'. This is a way of saying 'No' to a specific request without closing off the possibility of you saying ‘Yes’ some other time. It's a prelude to negotiation, not a rejection of the request. Only use this type if you genuinely want to accept the request, but you can’t just now. For example, ‘I can't come out with you tonight, but maybe next week?’

    The enquiring 'No' is a way of opening up or diverting the request, to see if there’s something about it or something else you want to do. A way of using this might be, ‘I can't talk to you on Skype tonight, but is there anything else you want to talk to me about, other than your boyfriend?

    If all else fails, there’s the direct 'No'. When someone asks you to do something you don't want to do, just say 'No'. There’s no need for any apologising, just be direct and succinct. If someone asks you to join them for lunch, for example, and you don’t want to, simply say
    ‘No, no thank you.’
  7. So next time, rather than say ‘Yes’ and regret it later or wish that you could have said ‘No’, try using one of these strategies or just try to say ‘No’ and you might find life becomes a little easier. You’re not being cruel or harsh by saying ‘No’, you are just looking after yourself a little better because, sometimes, you have to say ‘Yes’ to yourself and ‘No’ to other people.

Time for reflection

Spend a few moments thinking of situations that have come about because you agreed to do something that you really didn’t want to do.

Now think of a strategy, a way to say ‘No’, that would help you next time.


Dear Lord,
thank you that ‘No’ exists. Help me to use that word carefully and thoughtfully.



‘ ‘Tis the gift to be simple’ (Come and Praise, 97)

Publication date: May 2013   (Vol.15 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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