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How to Say No at Work Politely and Effectively and still be a Team Player

Updated: Jan 25

Saying "No" at work without feeling guilty or making enemies is a delicate balancing act.

Personal Empowerment Life Coach and Executive Coach Smita D Jain on How to Say No At Work

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:

  • Unrealistic deadlines,

  • 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' fo