Updated: Jan 25
Saying "No" at work without feeling guilty or making enemies is a delicate balancing act.
The word no is often associated with negativity. In our society, the default answer to nearly every question is “Yes.” All advertisements are geared toward making us say, “Yes - I need that.”
We phrase our inquiries looking for yes. “Would you like more coffee?” “Would you be interested in joining me for dinner?” “Would you mind if I asked you a personal question?” With such a powerful default answer ingrained in us, it can be challenging to say anything else — often leaving us feeling trapped, guilty, or frustrated.
But sometimes saying yes when we really mean no at work can lead to resentment, frustration, confusion, and dissatisfaction. You end up feeling overwhelmed or being taken advantage of.
So, with a universal and expected default answer, “No” becomes one of the most powerful words we can use - if we can manage it! However, overcoming this momentum for “Yes” can be incredibly difficult sometimes with all the pressure. It’s important to know when and how to say no before you become overwhelmed with all the work you should have declined or pushed back to a later date.
When to say No at Work
Steve Jobs once said, “Focusing is about saying no”. To improve your work-life integration, you must focus on what has to be done instead of adding more to your to-do list, lowering the quality of all your work. But that this what saying yes all the time can do.
While it is still very important to make sure we are clear about what we want to say yes to, it is equally important, if not more so, to be clear when to say no.
Specifically, the issue here is to be clear about what is important to us. Yes and no are equally viable and relevant answers in the appropriate circumstances - but they may yield dramatically different results.
So, if understanding and applying the correct answer is critical, how do we figure it out?
The most critical step in figuring out which answer is right is to start off by understanding what is important to us. This can be done with a simple reflection process.
Take a moment to slow down and sink into your body. Allow yourself to notice sensations in your body without seeking to change them. Relax and connect with your inner voice of knowledge. Now ask yourself a few simple questions about issues in your life. You are cultivating mindfulness and living in the moment now. Notice how your body reacts. Is it energised? Does your body feel drained or depleted? One of those reactions will occur with Yes and the other with No in response to the question. Typically, the response that energises us the most is the answer that is most relevant and thus most important to us. You need to notice the reaction and, therefore, the answer.
Why do you avoid saying “No”?
Now that you are clear about when to say a No, the next part is to say a No. The hardest thing about saying no tends to be the fear of letting someone down—a manager, colleague, or friend — or perhaps you don’t want to seem out of your depth.
However, there are many situations in which it’s entirely justifiable to say “No”, such as:
Having too many things on your plate,
Something that’s just not your job (especially when you have something that actually is in your job description that you need to focus on).
Yet, people are still hesitant to say 'No' for fear of conflict and/or being labelled as “difficult to work with” or “not a team player.” We don’t want anyone to be disappointed or angry with us.
This pressure to say “Yes” is even more for women. Men are seen as likeable if they’re assertive, and women if they’re compliant. And everyone wants to be perceived as agreeable.
Dos and Don’ts of Saying “No” at work
Saying “No” is a delicate art; there are quite a few things you need to keep in mind to do it correctly at work. To make it easier to remember everything, I have divided the tips into Dos and Don’ts.
DOs of saying “No” at work
How to say No at work politely without feeling guilty? Here is your guide:
Reframe your thinking about the word “No”
Re-examine your views about saying no and reframe what you think about it.
Saying “No” to something that doesn’t matter means saying “Yes” to something important to you, such as a priority task you want to save time. It means that you respect your time and want to be intentional about spending it. Your time and energy are finite. You need to pick your work wisely for effective stress management. You don’t become a bad person for prioritising.
Be both assertive and polite
Pay attention to your tone and body language. On the one hand, you should be straightforward and assertive and say “No” firmly. On the other hand, you should also be pleasant and polite.
Have a neutral tone— not being mean without coming across as too nice. Finding the right balance is crucial to delivering the “No” right.
Pay attention to your body language
When saying NO remember the power of non-verbal communication.
Look the person in the eye when you say the NO. Shake your head at the same time as saying NO. Stand up tall, and use a firm tone in your voice.
Body language that speaks “No” — folding arms and crossing legs, sitting back, turning torso and feet away to disengage, closed posture, etc.
Body language that speaks “Yes” — leaning forward, open posture, sitting upright but comfortably, enthusiastic hand movements, etc.
Tip: Want to know which areas you need to work on to enhance your communication skills? Take the Free Communication Skills Assessment to take the first step to communicate with influence.
Offer an alternative
Try to come across as someone who really wants to help but doesn’t have the bandwidth to take on more work. For this, offer to help your colleague or boss find a solution. You are still refusing while coming across as a team player at work.
Perhaps you could ask some of your fellow colleagues if they are free to help. Otherwise, share your schedule with your boss and highlight a future date where you have the time to start the project.
Take time to think it through
Nobody needs an answer straight away, so when your boss or colleague asks you to help them with a new project, take your time and think of all the consequences. Tell the person you will check your schedule and get back to them. Reflect if you have some free time and what comes first if not. Is it what you have in your diary or this new project. If you feel stretched far enough and other things are a priority, you have your answer.
Ask for help prioritising
Certain projects have more preference than others at work. Depending on what kind of position you are in, your boss may be the best person to ask about this. Your idea of what must be done and your boss’s do list could be different. So, ask for help prioritising your schedule, and if they think you can push back on the timeline of another project, you can work together to do so.
Acknowledge the other person
A little bit of empathy goes a long way in maintaining a good relationship with others despite saying No.
Always speak from a place of compassion and make people feel heard.
Use phrases such as “I realise/understand that…”. For example, “I understand that you are really busy, and I wish I could help, but my schedule is completely packed.”
Block time in your calendar when you’re busy
If you want to show you are busy without actually saying it, block the time in your work calendar when you don’t want to be disturbed. Making your work tools like calendar, messengers etc., speak for you helps avoid confrontation, which is a plus. Effective time management is important for happiness and success.
Practice makes perfect, as they say. Practice saying “No” in situations that aren’t crucial, such as saying it to a salesperson trying to get you to buy something you don’t want. Consciously try saying “No” to such a person for at least seven days. This will help you build confidence to say “No” when it really matters.
You may also try out the “no” answer on something small at first. Maybe something as simple as “Would you like more coffee?” or some such similar question. Notice the contentment and satisfaction you feel in giving an honest answer or even just using the word! See where we can begin to apply that answer in comfortable and empowering ways. Notice how your body reacts and feels more alive. Experiment with new questions and new opportunities.
You can even rehearse saying it in the mirror if it works for you.
Prepare for a possible negative feedback
No matter how nice and reasonable your “No” was, some people aren’t going to take it well, especially if it’s your first-time setting boundaries.
Be mentally prepared for that option and know it has nothing to do with you. (Re)actions of other people are not your fault — everyone is responsible for their own.
DON’Ts of saying “No” at work
You should avoid these practices if you want to achieve the best possible delivery of your “No“.
Don’t go into too much detail
You should, of course, give a reason for your refusal but have to convey it crisply. There’s no need to tell your whole life story. “I’m so sorry, but my manager gave me another task, and I’m already working on one big project, and I’m having a hard time finishing everything, and I never come home before 8 PM and …” is too much.
“Thanks for reaching out, but I need to finish the high-priority project I’m working on, so I, unfortunately, wouldn’t be able to help you”, is just enough.
Don’t say “Sorry” too many times. In fact, it’s better to avoid saying it and turn the “Sorry” statement into a “Thank you” statement whenever possible. For example, say “Thank you for your patience” instead of “Sorry for waiting.”
Don’t give false hopes that you’ll change your mind
If you already know what your answer will be, don’t prolong saying it. It will only be harder with time, especially if you’re an anxious person — but even if you aren’t, that mental burden will add extra stress.
Moreover, it’s fairer to the other side, too, as they’ll have more time to find someone else.
Corporate Speak: 7 strategies to politely say no
Experienced managers and executives are all too familiar with the problem of being bombarded with requests for advice and help. How to politely decline a task without coming across as less of a team player at work?
1. Postponement: “I am deep in work at present. Can you please come back to me later?” Here you are making it clear that you are constrained for time. If they come back later, you know they are serious about speaking with you.
2. Referral: “I am not qualified enough to work on this project. However, maybe this will help.” You do not need to give advice on topics out of your area of expertise.
3. Introduction: “I am not the best person to speak on the subject; however, I know who can help.” Direct them to one of your contacts who is more of an expert in that area.
4. Setting up connections: “You both have the same goals.” Introduce people to others with similar interests. This could become a valuable new relationship for both of them.
5. Delegation: “Why don’t you set up a meeting with my colleague?” Delegate the first meeting to a colleague or assistant who can ascertain the most relevant issues.
6. Clubbing: “Others have raised similar questions. Why don’t we all meet together and go over it?” Set up a group meeting instead of answering the same questions repeatedly.
7. Personal development: “I am really sorry to disappoint you. I am making a point of saying no more often this year. You seem especially persistent, and it seemed like a good opportunity for me to practice my resolution.”
How to Say No at work without making enemies: Specific Situations
Saying “No” to your boss
Saying “No” to your boss is tricky. After all, it’s intimidating to refuse someone who can get you fired. The best way to do it is by talking about priorities.
Thank them for thinking of you — it’s nice that they want to involve you in new, exciting projects.
Explain what you’re working on now and how taking additional projects will affect your current ones.
Ask which projects should take priority.
It can go like this: “Thank you for thinking of me for this. If this is a priority, I can start working on it right now; however, it will push the deadline of the other project by a month.”
Saying “No” to your coworker
Many people have problems with saying “No” to coworkers because they don’t want to be perceived as unhelpful. You can avoid this by being as honest as possible.
If you have no expertise in a project they’re asking you to take on, just say it.
If you lie and get caught — for example, if you say you’re “too busy” and then they see you take on other projects — it will damage your relationship.
If you still decide to lie, don’t be obvious! Busy people don’t take long coffee breaks and laugh at YouTube videos in the office.
Saying “No” to your employees
Giving a flat-out “No” to your employees’ suggestions won’t create a positive working atmosphere. Instead, thank them for their suggestions and try to explain why you do things the way you do. Try to turn that “No” into a “Why”.
The Last Word on Saying No at Work
Saying “No” at work is not easy, but it’s often necessary. You must set boundaries and stand up for yourself. Stop over-apologising and succumbing to pressure to put the needs of others before your own.
It’s a skill that has to be learned over time, and practice makes perfect. With time you can learn how to say a Positive No that will assert and defend your key interests; resist the other side’s aggression and manipulation while still getting the other party to say a Yes. You won’t find yourself doing things you never wanted to do in the first place and will feel much more confident about yourself.
It takes courage to say No at work. Be courageous.
Saying no at work politely from time to time will make you a more productive, efficient and healthy worker in the long run.
Not confident about speaking your mind with confidence? Take the free communication skills assessment to ascertain How Good are Your Communication Skills?
Smita D Jain is a Certified Executive Coach, Personal Empowerment Life Coach, and NLP Coach Practitioner. Smita’s ‘Empower Yourself’ Coaching Programs enable introverted executives to speak their minds with confidence and communicate their way up to influence so that they work because they want to, not because they have to.
Prior to her journey as a coach, Smita had extensive experience of 14 years as a corporate and business strategy professional with Fortune 500 companies. She is also a speaker at various public forums, a published writer, and an Amazon bestselling author.