How to Say ‘No’ at Work

When you already have too much on your plate and your boss or coworker asks you to take on another assignment, saying “No” should be easy, but it rarely is.

When you already have too much on your plate and your boss or coworker asks you to take on another assignment, saying “No” should be easy, but it rarely is.

The problem is that we often feel like we don’t have any choice but to say yes. If we turn the work down, we worry that we’ll offend someone or be labeled as “not a team player” or “difficult.”

The other problem is that saying no doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We are evolutionarily hardwired to say “yes” to requests even when we don’t want to. It’s human nature to feel bad for disappointing a colleague, turning down your boss, or denying a client’s request.

But learning how to say “No” at work is critical to your success and the success of your organization.

Importance of Learning to Say ‘No’

Being the go-to “yes person” at your office might seem like the ideal position to be in, but you’ll just wind up being stretched too thin and stressed. What we need to understand is that every time we say yes to something we’re saying no to something else. If you take on work you don’t have time for, it will impact your existing work.

Learning to say no at work helps you learn to focus on what really matters, and not just what’s in front of you. This is key to a more cohesive workload, better time management, and ultimately, a better result. When you say no, you gain a sense of empowerment over your life and workload that’s invaluable at every level of your career.

Set Up Personal Barriers

Multiple studies reveal that humans are overly optimistic about the time it takes us to complete a task. It’s called the planning fallacy—our eyes are larger than our stomach. In one study, students were asked to estimate the completion date for a project, and on average, they were 30 days early in their estimation.

The question is, “How do you set up personal barriers when we’re so bad at gauging what those barriers are?”

It’s not easy, but it is possible. You need to set formal boundaries for yourself based on what is strategically crucial to your career. When you get a request from someone, ask yourself if it will prevent you from accomplishing your key career goals and responsibilities. If the answer is yes, then you need to put up a hard barrier and say no.

It’s also vital to set up boundaries when it comes to people. Often we say yes just because it’s the path of least resistance when someone pushes us too much. But that’s the wrong reason to give in. Instead, you need to learn to recognize the signs of a pushy person, so you can be prepared to stand up to them.

Also read: Turning Quirks into Your Competitive Advantage

Signs of a Pushy Person

Being outspoken, honest, and opinionated are necessarily bad qualities. However, they can cause a problem it means that someone is pushing their own agenda on you.

To make sure you don’t fall into the trap of giving in to a pushy person, here are some signs to keep an eye out for.

  • They’re often skilled at commanding an audience and show little patience.
  • They typically have a way of making you feel uncomfortable.
  • They have expectations they want met and won’t listen to feedback.
  • They aren’t afraid to use guilt to get what they want.
  • They are aggressive and refuse to read subtle hints.

When dealing with a pushy person, you can’t be afraid to say no, no matter how much easier it would be to say yes. And the first step is to learn to say “No” without explaining yourself.

Learn to Say ‘No’ Without Explaining Yourself

Have you ever said no to someone only to then go on and spend the next 15 to 20 minutes explaining yourself? Of course, you have. We all do that, but it’s not necessary.

If you’re worried that saying no comes across as threatening or rude, don’t be. Research from Columbia University reveals that our perception of our own assertiveness is often unreliable. We often think we’re too assertive when we’re seen as under-assertive. This means that you can say no without coming across as confrontational and without needing to explain yourself.

You have obligations on your time, energy and focus that don’t need to be explained. So, unless there’s a reason to explain yourself—someone else is more qualified for the job—just say no and let it go.

How to Say ‘No’ Politely in Business

Though you don’t have to explain yourself to say no, you do need to be prepared. Here are some ideas for how to say “No” politely in business.

Take time to consider the request.

A gut-shot “no” isn’t always the best way to go about it. Instead, ask if you can get back to the person making the request and then take some time to seriously consider the assignment and your current workload. Think strategically about what you would need to do to deliver quality work and if it’s an assignment that would work for you.

Once you’ve made your assessment, you can then go back to the client, coworker, or manager with your response and context about where you’re at so they can better understand your decision. This way, when/if you say no, the other side knows that you understand the consequences and thought through your decision.

Prepare some possible responses in advance.

There are few things worse than being caught off guard in a situation, particularly when that situation requires you to say no. So prepare a few lines in advance that you can use to turn someone down while still sounding professional and coming across as a team player.

For example:

  • If you’re too busy, you could say, “Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I’m overscheduled right now and can’t take on anything else.”
  • If you’re not the right person for the job, “Thanks for considering me, but I’m not the right person to handle this. PERSON’S NAME would be a better fit and help.”
  • If the work is unrealistic, “I’m glad you feel that I’m the right person to handle this assignment, but the work is unfeasible with its current deadline and my workload. If I was to take this on, I would need … explain your needs.”

Also read: How to Beat Perfectionism

Say “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”.

According to a study found in the Journal of Consumer Research, one technique for saying no is to say, “I don’t” instead of “I can’t.” While “I can’t” sounds like an excuse that could be debated, “I don’t” implies you’ve established certain rules and are convicted about your stance.

Don’t be afraid to be straightforward.

One of the worst things you can do is equivocate and never give a straight answer, thus leaving the request and person hanging in the unknown. Instead, when you need to turn down work, be honest about it and candid about why you need to say no. You don’t have to explain yourself, just provide a steady and clear message on why you’re unable to do what they ask.

Just be sure to be neutral—not too nice or too mean. This means avoiding making the other person feel bad for asking for help, but at the same time, not giving false hope that you could eventually say yes. The key is to be kind but firm.

Offer a lifeline alongside your no.

Finally, just because you’re turning someone down for an assignment doesn’t mean you have to stop caring about them. Be empathetic and compassionate when it comes to their request, and then offer them a light at the end of the tunnel. You can acknowledge the negative consequences of your no and then offer to help in some other way.

For example, you could connect them with a person better suited to the work, offer a brainstorming session, serve as a sounding board, or any other small favor. In this way, you ensure that you maintain your good relationships while still saying no.

Looking for More Advice on Healthy Habits at Work?

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About the Author

Kelly Vo is a full-time freelance writer specializing in digital marketing, personal development, and content creation. A social media and brand development expert, you can find Kelly at where she helps businesses and executives develop their authentic voice.