As HR Tactics Evolve, Rely on What You Know

9 Guilt-Free Ways to Say No in the Workplace

Saying no is empowering. It puts you in control of your time, making certain that you’re acting—rather than being acted upon. The ability to say no in the workplace can be the difference in getting your work done well, or not getting it done at all.

It’s difficult to say no. You don’t want to appear to be a shirker, and saying no can be perceived as aggressive—as if you’re rejecting the person, as opposed to the task. There’s often guilt associated with saying no.

But saying yes can lead to an increased workload and stress. According to this article from the Mayo Clinic, saying no is an important way to simplify stress.

You should say no to a task when:

  • it prevents you from getting your assigned work done
  • it doesn’t align with your goals and responsibilities
  • when you’re unable to deliver results
  • when it might set a precedent where you’ll be unable to say no in the future

Here are nine way to say no in the office, and one way to say yes, but still alleviate stress:

The “3-Part” No

Saying no is more effective when you can “sandwich” it between understanding and gratitude. First, repeat the request and state that you appreciate the nature of it: “That’s a huge project. It’s going to take many talented people to accomplish it.” Next, decline the request: “Regretfully, I can’t take it on right now. I have to say no.” Finally, thank your colleague: “Thanks for considering me for the team.”

Take a Deep Breath before Responding

This method is most useful for people-pleasers, and those whose tendency is to blurt, “yes,” before considering the consequences. Before agreeing, take a deep breath and count to three, then say, “no.”

Say I Don’t, Instead of I Can’t

I can’t is a weak position. Your objections can be mitigated with alternative solutions. For example, if you say you can’t take on a new project because you don’t have the time, your colleague may inform you that overtime has been authorized. Or, if you explain you don’t have the skill, your boss may offer to send you to a training class (taking away more of your time!).

Instead, state firmly, “I don’t do X.” I don’t puts you in a position that’s hard to argue with:

“I don’t work overtime.”

“I don’t have enough bandwidth to take on a new project.”

Offer an Alternative Solution

Saying no outright can sometimes frustrate a co-worker or boss. This can lead to awkwardness or anger, and may affect office relationships. If you think this might be the case, offer an alternative to subvert the hard feelings: “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to provide that, but I can give you this.” Or, “I can’t do X by Wednesday, but I can have it by Monday.”

Appeal to Your Colleague’s Self-Interest

It’s tempting to phrase your no answer in a way that explains your own self-interest: you want to be understood. But sometimes, it’s more effective to consider the requestor in your response. Phrase your answer like this: “I don’t have the skill set to accomplish what you want to do.” Or, “There’s not enough time in my schedule to be fully engaged with your project. I’m not certain I can meet your expectations.”

Quid Pro Quo

Sometimes, there’s no getting around no. But it might be possible to compromise, and negotiate a favorable circumstance for yourself as well. Try something like, “I think I can find time in my schedule to handle that for you, if you can take X off my plate.” Or even, “I’ll do that for you if you support my ideas on X in the upcoming meeting.”

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere

Have you ever said yes to a request phrased like this: “Bob, I’m coming to you for this, because I know you’re the only one who can do the job right.” Flattery is so seductive. It’s hard to say no, but just turn it around: “I’m so flattered that you thought of me, but both Peggy and Joe are equally qualified—and more available than I am right now.”

My Manager Won’t Let Me

Shifting the blame is another way to say no. Explain to your co-worker that you can’t take on additional projects or work because your boss won’t let you. (Don’t let this backfire: clear it with your boss ahead of time.)

Buy Some Time

If you want to say no, but are being pressured to say yes, buy yourself some time to step back and assess the situation. In the wake of a pushy colleague, simply put them off. Say, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” This technique gives you some breathing room to relax, think clearly, and get your thoughts in order.

When You Have to Say Yes, Push Back on the Pressure

Sometimes, there’s just no saying no to the boss. Your plate is full, you’re already stretched thin, and you’re being asked to take on another assignment. Say yes, but frame your response with the reality of the situation: “I’m already working on projects X and Y. I’m happy to take on project Z. I just won’t be able to make the deadlines for the first two projects. How would you like me to prioritize the work?”

This post is one of a series of posts about planning. You might also be interested in:


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Kelly Harmon is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. By day, she is the Webmaster of the National Agricultural Library, where she spends her time analyzing web statistics, supporting the various NAL web sites, and writing the occasional article for Tellus Magazine, produced by the Agricultural Research Service, USDA. By night, she is an award-winning journalist and author, and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. She’s a bit of a word-nerd, and relies on her planner to keep life sane. You can read her posts here.

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