Say “No.” But nicely.

On of the activities I do with my middle school students is have them role-play saying “No” to sexual advances and requests for a date.  I do this not because I think they are in the thick of needing to say no to would-be-suitors and would-be-sexual partners, but because they will eventually be in the thick of it.

The need to say no is an issue that, for whatever reason, has been coming up a lot both in my personal life and in my professional life.  It is something of an art, really, being kind and yet crystal clear.

The other day in my college class, we were talking about developmentally-appropriate sex education at different ages.  I mentioned this middle school activity on how to say “No” that I do with my middle school students.  The students are broken up into two equal groups: A and B.  The first time through, randomly-drawn students from Group A ask randomly drawn students from Group B out on a date, and the Group B students must respond first with a “Yes” and then with a “No”.  (Yes, this means that sometimes girls are asking out girls and sometimes boys are asking out boys and sometimes it’s a cross-gender thing.)  The group talks about the clarity of both the question and the response.  Was it clear that the person asking was talking about a date and not just a friendly outing?  Was the person who responded clear about their level of interest?  Particularly when declining a date, people are prone to giving an excuse about why they are not available at that particular time or for that particular activity which can extend hope for another time/activity.  Instead, we work with the middle school students on clearly stating their romantic interest in the asker, while being as kind and gentle as possible.  After we’ve gone through the class this way, we switch and Group B asks and Group A responds with a yes and a no.

My college students immediately were focused on the activity itself rather than the developmental stages of sex education.  One student said, “Oh my god, you’re making the world a better place.”  Another student said, “I still don’t know how to say no without making up an excuse!”  Of course we put our discussion about age-appropriate sex ed on hold and talked about how to say no.

There are, of course, lots of ways to say no.  Some of them more kind than others.  Here are ways of saying no that are problematic, all for one reason or another:

  • I may be single, but I still have standards.  (Too cruel.)
  • I’m busy that morning/day/night.  (An excuse – implies that another day/time would work.)
  • I have a boyfriend.  (Also an excuse – implies that if that relationship ends, the responder would be interested.)

So while it’s become something of a cliche recently, responding with something along the lines of:

  • I’m just not that into you.

is really the kindest way to say no.  It’s clear.  It’s honest.  It’s to-the-point.  And someone who has opened themselves up to you deserves that.

Have you talked with your kids or students about how to say no kindly and honestly?  And if you have talked about it in theory, have you talked about the specifics of what that means, what words they should say?  Because saying, “Say no kindly” is a whole different ballgame from having them practice coming up with words when they are looking at someone who is asking them out on a date – even if it is just a roleplay.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. I think what might be of more value here is in the asking side of the roleplay, as opposed to the “saying no” side. The reason that I say this is that, while it would be nice if people could say “no” without giving an excuse, we have a cultural protocol that if a few invitations get declined without a proposal of an alternate date/time that would work for the invitee, the inviter is supposed to take the hint and stop asking. This even has the benefit of allowing the inviter to save a bit of face, because he or she was not technically rejected.

    I guess I always thought of that as a bit of an unspoken rule, along the lines of, “If you don’t come right out and tell me I’m not in your league, I won’t tell you those pants are–ahem–unflattering.”

  2. The situation I’ve been in the most often, and I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of it, is when Person A likes Person B romantically, but Person B “only” likes Person A as a friend. I say “only” in quotes because as a friend is an important and genuine way to like someone! When both people truly want to be friends but one also wants more than that, it can get sticky. “I really do like you as a friend…really…!”

  3. Roberto,
    While I agree that that is a culturally accepted norm, it tends to surrender a lot of power to the asker. Additionally, depending on how the excuse is given, they may feel that you have led them on when they finally accept that you are not interested. Lastly, it can be stressful on the respondent. Choosing to be more honest is probably the healthier way to go for all parties involved, even if it is not the norm.

  4. I understand what Roberto is saying, but I’m more on the lines on where Alice is coming from. I’d like to see people saying something more like, “I really like you, you are my friend. I don’t see you in a romantic way. I hope we can maintain our friendship.” But I tend to be kind of wordy and in my head, so maybe that’s too idealistic.

  5. I agree with Roberto overall. As well as learning how to say “No”, we need to learn how to hear “No.”

    I think the roleplaying Karen’s students are practicing sounds like an excellent exercise.

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