How to say no effectively

Do you know how to say no at work? We’ve lost count of the number of people we’ve worked with who are overwhelmed by work pressures, yet continue to take them on. Along with professional and personal consequences of course. As a result of saying ‘yes’ when ‘no’ might have served them better, their stress levels were sky-high and their quality of work suffered. No one wins.

So what are we afraid of when we say ‘yes,’ but our instinct is telling us to say ‘no’? Is it the intimidating boss you’ve always assumed won’t take no for an answer? Or do you worry that your team members might think you’re letting the team down if you refuse to add to your workload?

It’s a tough one. But it’s a habit that can be worked on and overcome. It’s time to rethink priorities!

Reasons we give ourselves for saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’:

  • Negative connotations. We’re worried that saying no shows something negative or weak about us. We fear that it suggests we’re not good enough or smart enough or we’re unable to deal with our workload.
  • Relationship dynamics. We worry about the impact that saying no will have on our relationship in question. We don’t want to be viewed as unhelpful.
  • Not respecting our own limits. We hope and wait to be rescued. We don’t stop to acknowledge and accept that if we don’t set our own limits, no one else will magically swoop in and do it for us. We don’t realise that it’s only ever the people in our closest circles who will tell us to stop working so hard.


Is this you?

If this is you, think of it this way: when you say yes to something you should have said no to, you’ve often said no to several other really important other things in your life. By instinctively saying yes to a work commitment, you can be saying no to great health. You’re saying no to home-life activities that are important for your growth as a person who wants to contribute their whole self (not just their work self) to the world. And for many people, saying yes too often at work means saying no to being home in time for family. Soon enough, a domino effect starts to happen and life feels out of control.

How to say No

It’s not just about realising that no is sometimes an OK answer, it’s also about learning how to say no. There are ways to do it that won’t break the relationship in question. You can express enthusiasm for the ‘opportunity’, but explain that the timing isn’t right for everyone to get the best outcome if you take it on. If it’s your boss leaning on you to take on extra commitments, you might try asking them to help you prioritise and reconfigure your time. Doing this gives visibility to your workload – a workload they might not have been quite so aware of before.

See ‘no’ differently…

If you can just take on half of these suggestions as new habits, you’ll see a smoother road ahead.

  • Take time to consider the request carefully. Prepare to shift your mindset!
  • Compliment who’s asking on the ‘opportunity’, demonstrating that you understand this is important to them
  • Offer an alternative approach to answering a query. If possible, give alternate choices.
  • Tap into important triggers. If they ask elsewhere they might produce the outcome they need with more efficiency or speed or for free/less money
  • If you can help them but the timing is just wrong, demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm but let them know that in order for you to do a quality job you can’t start until a certain date
  • If the person flatters you on your ability to do the job well, don’t be fooled into saying yes just because of that. Thank them for the compliment and say you’d love to help them, but it will have to be another time.
  • If the request is coming from someone senior, explain the conflict you have and ask for help prioritising between the projects taking up your time. If this is not your line manager, explain that you’ll need to double check the new priority list with your manager before agreeing.

If you work in a global organisation and deal regularly with different nationalities based in different parts of the world, take time to understand and respect how ‘no’ is used, understood and responded to in business situations. Consult experienced colleagues in the field or read up on cultural subtleties in the workplace. At the very least, it will help if you’ve done your research into how colleagues and seniors might react if you decline their requests when they’re least expecting it. Everything stated above still stands, but while you might need to modify, language, delivery and timing, your message and your goal remains the same.

Finally, if you’re thinking “this all sounds reasonable but you haven’t met my demanding boss who would just laugh or sack me if I tried any of this”, then it might be time to weigh up what’s keeping you in such an unforgiving environment. If your sense of realism, your health and the value of your whole self are being continuously ignored in favour of getting the job done at any cost, then is this where you see yourself long-term?

If your team is struggling with saying “no” and managing demands, we can help. Send us a message:


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