How to Say No


The Harvard Business Review regularly publishes articles on how long work hours are backfiring for people and companies. They highlight research showing that overwork has a negative impact on our resilience and our health. This leads to low productivity, absenteeism and burned out employees. While it is important to manage our workload to minimize long work hours, that can be much easier said than done. With work being piled on and crisis after crisis hitting our offices, it is very easy to become overwhelmed with work.

One key to getting control of your workload is to start saying no. Many people find it hard to decline a request, thinking saying no is rude or signals that you are not a team player. However, saying no effectively will do the opposite. It will ensure that you have a manageable workload and higher resilience so you can be much more effective in the work you are doing. Here are some tips on saying no:

  • Understand why you want to say yes: Many of us impulsively say yes because we want to be the perfect employee, we don’t want to disappoint others, we avoid conflict or we have a strong sense of duty. Identify the reasons you say yes when you would prefer to say no and actively counter them.
  • Have clear priorities: Having clear work priorities allows you to evaluate every request to determine whether they are consistent with your priorities. If they aren’t, use your priorities as the basis for saying no.
  • Give yourself time before responding: Replace an instant yes with, “Let me take some time to think about that,” or “I’ll get back to you.” This will give you the time to check whether this involves a yes trigger and whether saying yes is consistent with your priorities. If you decide to say no, it gives you time to plan how you will deliver this message.
  • Remind yourself that pleasing everyone pleases no one: It is very easy to make someone happy in the short term by saying yes, but if you are overwhelmed and cannot fulfill your promise or provide substandard work, you’ll have a very frustrated person later on. It is much better to have some minor disappointment in the near term than anger in the long term.
  • Provide other options: If you want to be helpful without saying yes, direct the asker to other ways she can meet her needs. While not always possible, this can lessen potential conflict or disappointment since the asker is still 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 in a professional manner is not wrong, but is in fact encouraged. If you often struggle to say no, that is behavior for you to address, and it doesn’t help to blame the asker.
  • Say yes to the person, no to idea: This essentially means acknowledging (and thereby not outright rejecting) a person, but saying no to the specific idea, event or request. For example, “Will you take over this new project?” could generate a reply along this line: “I think this project is important. I unfortunately have a full plate and would not be able to give the project the type of attention it needs for success. I’ll be happy to support whoever you assign to the project and lend my expertise when needed.” This type of response lessens the feeling of rejection, reduces tension that comes with rejection and preserves a positive relationship with the requester.

What helps you say no?


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Beth Payne is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Bob Silver

While I think that this topic is important and deserves to be read by all, I stopped reading it midway because of the spelling and grammar errors.

Irene Koo

Thank you for your note, it looks like some errors/typos got by us! Hope you’ll give the piece a full read now that the text has been updated (:


Awesome and timely article–thank you for writing it. I think the tips are do-able and some are effective, as I have used them in the past. I look forward to using the others in the future!


I followed this kind of advice a number of years back after attending a training that included this topic. Despite having clear priorities and phrasing my response carefully, the person went to my supervisor who in turn instructed me to do what was being requested despite it creating a deadline conflict for me. In the end I lost on all accounts – I looked bad to my boss and coworkers, and missed my project deadline. I ultimately chose to move on from that organization, but my advice is to think carefully before using this time management tool.


For those who are interested in this topic, it is explored in depth in a book called “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown. It’s been a pretty powerful influence in my career so far.

Elise Lawrence

Great article! I need to remind myself of this on a daily basis. I’s very difficult to do when you know that you could really help. Although, I do realize that some people take advantage of others that offer their help often.