Leadership February 27, 2019

Learning to say “no” when you need to

7 tips for saying “no” at work

Do you feel like you’re in the saying-yes-trap? That to get ahead you need to say “yes” to every new opportunity that crosses your path? Do you say “yes” easily to other demands? Be careful! By ending up with a “yes” to everything, you follow other people’s priorities while your own priorities fall to the wayside. But even if we know we should say “no”, we often quickly say “yes” without thinking about the consequences. Why can’t we say “no”? Are we afraid of being unpopular? Do we want to be the super hero who deals with everything? There are many reasons behind this behaviour, but one thing is clear: if you haven’t developed the skill of using the small “no” word, you will suffer over the long term.

Here are 7 tips to help you create space for an intentional yes:

1. Know your development goals

Be aware of your professional goals and the skills you need to acquire to achieve them. Knowing your goals helps you to decide if new opportunities match with them. This way you can take solid decisions and grab development opportunities you might have otherwise overlooked.

2. Break your habit of saying “yes” too easily

Resist automatically saying “yes”. You’ll be the one taking on the work. Instead, ask yourself: “Do I really want to do this”? There are few proposals or invitations which need an immediate reply. Instead of reacting with a cheerful “sure,” say “Let me think about it.” This way you’ll learn to take some time to reflect about what’s been asked of you and you can see how the assignment fits into your existing workload before you reply.

If it’s very hard for you to say “no”, start by saying “no” to small things first. This can be an invitation you don’t feel like going to or the choice of a lunch restaurant you don’t really like, for example. By practising this way, you’ll be better equipped to decline bigger propositions within a business context.

3. Gather your courage

If you normally say “yes”, it will take courage to say “no”. Especially if the person asking is insisting and doesn’t give up easily. You might feel like you’re not living up to expectations by letting someone down. You might also be afraid of creating a bad impression. However, those things might be the cost of staying in the driver’s seat. Of course the risks and benefits of declining a request, both personally and professionally, should always be carefully considered.

4. Don’t give lengthy excuses

People don’t want your excuses. So don’t justify yourself by laying out your entire calendar and don’t beat about the bush. Say “no” to the request once, with clear determination, and give a short explanation. The other person should hear a clear “no” and not a “no, but” because this can reopen the discussion. By getting straight to the point, you’ll save everybody time and help yourself stay focused on your tasks.

5. Seek an alternative

While saying no, try to help the person who approached you about the task. What other options are there? How can you help find a way to tackle the request or project? Is there perhaps another colleague who might be available? Could the situation be solved by working with someone external? By discussing alternatives, you show your commitment and willingness to support them.

6. Say no to the request, not the person

Make clear that you’re not rejecting the person, you’re just declining their invitation. By being polite and friendly, you will let them know you aren’t rejecting them. Don’t just write an email. Communicating directly with the person builds the relationship further.

7. Be ready to miss out

Some of us don’t say “no” because they hate missing an opportunity. And saying “no” always leads to a missed opportunity. But in reality it’s a trade-off. Remind yourself that when you’re saying “no”, you’re saying “yes” to something more important. You’re just choosing one thing over another.

Saying "no" when you mean "no" is a relevant skill. For some people it comes naturally. For others, it requires habitual practice and conscious use. We all have obligations that we can’t reject, but within the limits of your control, you should ensure that you’re operating at the optimal level. So respect your boundaries by saying “no”, which is at the same time saying “yes” to yourself, something more important, or someone else.


How can we take a stand without rejecting the person?

1. Acknowledge
I know the importance of this topic for you and I really thought about it…
2. Straight to the point
My decision is NO… because I consider something else to be even more important…
3. Leave room to react
Yes, I can understand your feelings...
Do you want me to rephrase the reason?
4. Seek an alternative
What other options are there?
How can I help you to find a solution?

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