11 Tips on How to Say No

The ability to say no is an essential resilience skill. It helps us stay in control of our time and provides the space we need to practice the five resilience factors.

Unfortunately, it is tough to say no even when we know we should. If you want to become better at saying no, try some of these tips:

Understand why you want to say yes

Many of us say yes because we want to be the perfect employee, don’t want to disappoint others, avoid conflict, or have a strong sense of duty. Identify the reasons you say yes when you would prefer to say no and actively counter them. For example, if you tend to avoid conflict, recognize this and prepare yourself to work through the tension this creates.

Set boundaries

Set clear limits that allow you to evaluate every request to determine whether it falls within your boundaries. If a request crosses a boundary, remind yourself why you established the boundary and the costs associated with saying yes. Setting priorities is one example of setting boundaries, making it easier to explain that a work request is not a priority at the moment and, therefore, cannot be done.

Give yourself time before responding

Replace an instant yes with “Let me check my calendar” or “I’ll get back to you” to give yourself the time to check whether yes is consistent with your boundaries. If you decide to say no, it gives you time to plan how you will deliver this message.

Decline with clarity

It’s tempting to water-down a no, but doing so can result in miscommunication about expectations that can eventually damage your reputation and relationship.

Share a reason

Give an honest explanation that you think is most credible to the person making the request. Examples include: “My team is down two people, and we are only taking on new assignments if they are in our top five priorities” or “This is outside my area of expertise, and I don’t want to deliver a sub-par product.”

Don’t argue about your reason

Don’t let your requester argue with you about the validity of your reason for declining the request. If he attempts to debate, repeat your explanation over and over until he gives up.

Remind yourself that pleasing everyone pleases no one

It is tempting to make someone happy in the short term by saying yes. However, if you are overwhelmed and cannot fulfill your promise or provide substandard work, you’ll have a very frustrated person later on. You also risk developing a reputation for not keeping promises. It is much better to have some minor disappointment in the near term than anger in the long run.

Provide other options

If you want to be helpful without saying yes, direct the asker to different ways she can meet her needs. While not always possible, this can lessen potential conflict or disappointment since the asker is achieving her goal.

Don’t blame the person asking

It is very common to become annoyed or angry with people who ask for something you do not want to provide. Remind yourself that asking for something, if done professionally, is not wrong. If you struggle to say no, that’s behavior for you to address and it doesn’t help to blame the asker.

Say yes to the person, no to the idea

By acknowledging a person but saying no to the specific request, you may reduce your guilt and preserve a meaningful relationship. For example, if a colleague asks you to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies from his daughter, you may respond that you admire the Girl Scouts and think their annual cookie sales is a great effort, however, you’re trying to cut back on sweets and already bought the one box of cookies you allow yourself every year.

Drop the guilt

Guilt signals that you’ve done something wrong and need to make amends. Many of us feel guilty habitually, even when we’ve done nothing wrong. When you feel guilty, ask yourself, “have I harmed someone or acted in conflict with my values?” If yes, apologize, and do better. If no, remind yourself that there is no reason to feel guilty.

What helps you say no? Tell me in the comments about your experiences saying no.

Beth Payne is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is an experienced resilience trainer and consultant. In 2016, she created the U.S. Department of State’s Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience, where she designed resilience tools and resources for foreign affairs professionals. She served as a U.S. diplomat from 1993 until 2016 with assignments at the U.S. Embassies in Senegal, Rwanda, Israel, and Kuwait and as the U.S. Consul General in Kolkata, India. In 2003, she opened the Office of the U.S. Consul in Baghdad, Iraq, where she received the State Department’s award for heroism. You can read her posts here.

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James Abyad

Being clear in your no is huge! I’ve noticed more when looking back over communications, in my efforts to soften a no, I come across in such a confusing way!

Isaac Constans

Beth, I really love this piece. Such an important skill for me (and I think most people) to improve on, as you can always improve at communicating. Giving an honest “no” and a good reason is such a great base for positive office cultures.