Saying ‘no’ with style to would-be borrowers

I was recently approached by a journalist from Prima magazine, to contribute to an article on saying ‘no’. She asked me what life coachy things I had to say about when friends want to borrow something that you don’t want to lend.

The whole article is out in this month’s issue (August 2009) – on p54, if you’re interested – but space dictated that my contribution had to be heavily edited. However, for you lovely readers of O&U, here is my contribution in full:

  • Many people (myself included until quite recently) labour under the impression that there is a need to explain yourself when saying no. It’s fantastically liberating when you realise that you really don’t have to explain. Not at all. Of course, if pressed, you can choose to explain yourself, but it’s still not an obligation. Armed with this knowledge, you transform yourself overnight from a stuttering, embarrassed person with a tendency to fib for England into a cool, assertive and confident chick – ‘oh, er, um, I can’t lend you that dress, er, because, um, my sister’s borrowing that night and, er, for the next fortnight’ [exits backwards, red-faced], becomes ‘I hope you understand, but I’d really rather not.’ [flash of charming smile and a swift change of subject]


  • If you find that you do want to explain, keep it general and not personal. My friend Tess, a props maker, found herself continually lending tools out and having them returned in a less-than-perfect condition. Eventually, she decided on a ‘no-lend’ policy and, when pressed, would explain that she’d had a few problems in the past with lending items which had sometimes compromised her friendship with the borrowers so now she prefers not to lend at all. No names named, and it does the job perfectly.
  • Check in with yourself before responding, if you have the opportunity. What’s that irritation actually about? Has this friend let you down before when she borrowed something, or are you tarring her with the same brush as your less reliable acquaintances? Is it that she wants to borrow something very precious to you? You can say no! Or maybe this is about you feeling that you’re always bailing people out or that you’re rather unfairly being leant on? Maybe this is a symptom then of your friendship, or of your own view of yourself, both of which are issues that you can work on. It might be that, on reflection, you decide that the lend is not as much of a problem as you first thought (but if it is still a source of irritation and you decide not to do it, that’s ok too!)
  •  You could attach conditions for the lend, if it makes it more acceptable to you e.g that the item is dry-cleaned / returned by Tuesday / that any ‘consumables’ used are replaced (like tape in video cameras or similar). Similarly, you could try reciprocation e.g ‘of course you can borrow my camera – could I ask a favour in return and borrow that novel you were raving about last week?’, or ‘yes, you can borrow my necklace – any chance of a few of your chickens’ eggs?
  • Flattery and/or distraction can work e.g ‘well it’s true that you’d look great in my new dress, but that blue Jigsaw one of yours really makes you look fantastic – have you thought about wearing that?’ or ‘you know, rather annoyingly, that dress is on sale now at Whistles. As you like it so much, why don’t you get one too, so long as we promise not to wear it to the same party…’
  • Finally, if all else fails, a white lie to wriggle out of a lend is better than complying under pressure and then carrying a big grudge. But do work on becoming more assertive – the more you flex that muscle the stronger it gets and the easier it is to say no confidently and with a clear conscience.

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