11 Ways to Say No Professionally

Common advice says that if we want to alleviate stress, we have to learn to say 'no.' But often we feel like we can’t say 'no'—especially at work.

Why?

For one thing, we are programmed to say “yes.” We each have at least a 12-year history of completing term papers, handing in homework and—in general—finishing all of the tasks assigned to us if we wanted to pass.

Not only that, but most of us who are successful at what we do didn’t get there by refusing to do the job. We stay late, work through lunch, answer e-mails on the weekends--never noticing how much the lack of boundaries impacts how we feel about work until we are really, really miserable.

If being able to manage our lives is essential to our happiness, then we have to up our game when it comes to declining things that use up our personal resources of time and energy.

Here are 11 ways to say 'no' professionally:

I would like to help you with that. I have some competing deadlines [this, this, this]. Could you help me prioritize them?

There is a good chance that when a superior asks us to do something, they have no idea how much time it will take us to complete the task, nor do they understand our other responsibilities (even if they are the one who assigned them). Agreeing we are willing to do the task diffuses any sense of resistance in our response; and asking for help, enlists our boss in aligning what needs to be done with the resources available to do it which creates understanding.

I don’t have bandwidth to take that on. Let’s brainstorm another way we could get this done.

Sometimes no amount of prioritizing is going to help us fit a task into an already overburdened production schedule. Just saying 'no' can launch a negotiation with the other person into how you might possibly fit it in. By redirecting the conversation to focus on other resources, you create new possibilities that don’t involve you. Plus, you get the added benefit of being seen as a solution rather than a closed door.

I am honored that you thought of me for that, but in order to do it I would have to say no to some other things that are a priority right now.

Being presented with good opportunities that are not aligned with our highest priorities, can be tricky--especially if it is an opportunity that might be advantageous in the future or if we are being asked by someone we respect. Our tone has to acknowledge, the value of the opportunity and placing the qualifier “right now” in the mix lets the offerer know that we aren’t dismissing it completely. (Of course, if we know we are never going to be interested, we should leave that qualifier off.) If appropriate, offer to come up with ideas of comparable candidates and send the list the same week.

I don’t have time to chat right now, want to have lunch later? Or, I’m working on a deadline right now. Could I come talk with you in a couple of hours? 

One of the most important uses of the word 'no' at work is in preventing random conversations from impacting our ability to complete tasks during work hours. That doesn’t mean that social conversations aren’t important. In fact, they can be vital in maintaining healthy relationships on the team. We simply need a strategy for keeping them in check when we need to. So, defer the conversation and keep getting things done.

Thanks for sharing those suggestions. For this project, we need to follow a prescribed path. [Describe the path, if appropriate.]

When we are leading something, we have the responsibility of making the call, and that requires saying 'no' to all of the other options. (Did you know that the word ‘decide’ is from the Latin root decidere, which is a combination of two words meaning to ‘cut off’? We literally cut off the other options.) When we have to say no to someone else’s ideas, it helps to start by verbally recognizing that those ideas have value. However, we don’t have to refute those ideas or argue the merit of ours. We simply have to highlight the path that has been decided on.


I am so sorry. I have really overcommitted myself and I have to withdraw. (Don’t just drop this. Walk in with a plan.) 

Have you ever committed to something only to realize it was a huge mistake? Many times we just soldier on, building resentment when the better strategy would be to quit. The key to this method of saying 'no' is to walk in with a plan either with the agreement of someone who will take our place or another creative solution that eliminates our position entirely. This path requires some time to execute, but can produce the biggest win in alleviating a time and energy drain.

While I can’t create this, I’d be happy to review it.

Sometimes the best way to say ‘no’ is to offer to participate without being the creator of something. We trade a large time commitment for a smaller one. Other versions of this strategy include: While I can’t lead the big project, I’d be happy to contribute this small task; or while I can’t organize the event, I’d be happy to promote it to my friends; or while I can’t chair the committee, I’d be happy to serve as a member.

What would my role be on this project? Or, what would you like my role to be at this meeting?

People can wind up including us on projects and in meetings when it isn’t actually strategic to do so. And while we may not have a position where we can say ‘no’ to the assignment, we can ask to clarify what it is that we are expected to produce. Sometimes the conversation reveals to us a big picture angle we didn’t see and other times the conversation reveals to the requestor that we don’t really need to be part at all.

Send me the details so I can make a decision.

Often we don’t know the full impact of what we are committing to in the moment that it is being asked. We need some time to read and process the fine print. Just because someone asks for a commitment in real time doesn’t mean we have to give the response in real time. In fact, it is often to our benefit to delay. (Such as in a car dealership.)

Is this the best investment?

Rather than saying ‘no’, we can sometimes just ask a better question than the one we are being asked. I once presented a marketing initiative that required a $10,000 budget. My boss was brilliant in his response. He didn’t say ‘no.’ He simply asked, “If we are going to spend the $10,000, is this the most strategic way we could spend it to reach our goal?” The answer to that question? No. The difference was, that I was the one who supplied the ‘no.’

[Silence]

Far too many times we are not being asked to contribute anything at all, yet we jump in with a solution that contributes our time and energy when we really don’t have those resources to give. Just because we have the skills that are needed doesn’t mean we have to be the one to supply them. Sometimes, the best way to say ‘no’ is simply by not volunteering.

2 comments

  1. Excellent article; short, concise and concrete examples. thank you!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Bess Ann! I'm looking forward to upping my game in using them.

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