Saying “no” at work isn’t always easy, especially if you’re a people pleaser. But sometimes, we must decline, whether it’s thanks to a full workload, a lack of resources, or because a task is simply unfeasible.
But just as learning to say “no” can be a challenge, learning the right way to say “no” is just as laborious. Coming off too strongly will hurt your interpersonal relationships while being unclear will make others uncertain you actually declined something. Learn to take charge and clearly but politely say “no” by adhering to these reminders.
““No, that idea sucks,” is quite different from, “No, I’d like to take a different approach.”” –Sara McCord, The Muse
Even if you know right away you aren’t going to be able to help someone, make sure not to rudely interrupt with a dismissive “no.” Your respect for your boundaries is good, but you can decline in the right way after listening to what someone needs.
The Muse’s Sara McCord says that even when you know an idea is unfeasible or unpopular to let whoever is asking for help finish speaking before going further. The speaker may think you just don’t get it or think you’re being rude if you cut them off early. By listening to their full explanation, you can pick up on their needs. Even if you can’t meet those needs, you might be able to point them in a helpful direction while still respecting your boundaries.
If someone asks you for something and you respond with a quick “nah” it won’t be well received. Especially if your boss is the one asking you. There’s a balance to be struck with being clear but not being a jerk about it.
Asana’s Alicia Raeburn suggests starting by leading with something positive. Don’t go straight to the “no”—open up with a “Thank you” or “You’re so good at thinking of these opportunities” to let the asker know you appreciate them coming to you. You may have been the first person they asked because they trust you or you’re particularly skilled with something. Even if you can’t help this time, being polite about your decline will keep the interpersonal respect alive.
Offering to help in the future is another way to politely respond without shutting someone down. Maybe the timing is just bad right now or maybe you have too much on your plate. If they feel they can ask you again in the future, they’ll take that “no” even more positively.
“Unfortunately, I have too much to do today. I can help you another time.” –Indeed
If you really don’t want to do something, a common first instinct is to make up an excuse of sorts. It might feel like without a great reason, your “no” will be poorly received. But honesty is the best policy.
Forbes’ Ashira Prossack reminds us that being honest doesn’t mean explaining every single detail, however. If you have a task or appointment that would conflict with helping someone, you can just say you have a conflict and give a brief explanation. While you might feel bad declining to help someone, you also don’t owe them every single detail. In fact, the more details you provide, the more it may seem like you’re making up an excuse.
Be clear and firm
While the above tips are good for framing your rejection, make sure at some point you actually include the word “no.” Your response might otherwise seem so polite and professional that it seems like you’re agreeing despite your other commitments.
Indeed says to be consistent and firm with your “nos.” If you open with “no but eventually change your mind, people will think they can always get you to do what they want by constantly asking. Staying firm on your “no,” especially by doing it politely, will help the “no” stick.
Clockify’s Dunja Jovanovic says that you can reinforce your “no” assertively by combining it with the right body language. Shaking your head, crossing your arms, and sitting back are all signs of dismissal. If your words are polite but your tone and stance is firm, the asker will get the message without you coming across rudely.
For some of us, the idea of saying “no” in general is difficult enough. When we’re put on the spot and don’t want to disappoint someone, it’s easy to default to saying “yes,” even when it’s the wrong call. By keeping the above points in mind and practicing, however, we can stop ourselves from auto-agreeing.
“Sometimes when we are blindsided, things come out the wrong way. Therefore, practicing how to say “no” will prepare you for those times that your bandwidth is stretched to its max.” –Fellow
Saying “no” when needed will prevent burnout while setting healthy boundaries. The key to declining someone at work is to do it in the right way. Rethink that saying “no” means in the first place. It isn’t an attack on the person asking. You’ll often have good reasons to say “no,” and someone else may be able to help. Politely getting through the “no” is much easier if you hear the other person out and kindly but firmly explain why you can’t help.