How to say no in the workplace

None of us like being ‘that friend’ – the one who’s always saying no and letting people down. But sometimes, for our own mental health and wellbeing, we need to learn how to set healthy boundaries, manage our workloads, and discover how to say ‘No’

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

Saying ‘no’ can feel hard in any situation. You don’t want to let people down, you don’t want to be the ‘bad guy’ who makes more work for other people, and you definitely don’t want to disappoint others who are relying on you. We’re taught to be yes-people – to come up with solutions, not problems, to always have a positive attitude, an affirmative answer, or an alternative solution ready and raring to go.

Just saying ‘No’ isn’t always that easy. When we share what can be perceived as a negative opinion too often, we can risk colleagues and teammates viewing us in a more negative light – no matter how valid our concerns may be; finding the balance between when and how you say no is key.

It’s time to stand up and embrace the power of no, and how it can benefit not only us, but can help to create a happier, healthier workplace.

Recognise the value of ‘No’

It’s not just a powerful word. ‘No’ allows us to take back ownership and highlight the value of our time. A well-placed ‘No’ can acknowledge an already full schedule and, while an outright refusal isn’t always possible, it can be a segway into starting discussions about the priorities of new tasks compared to existing projects and responsibilities.

Phrasing your response to ask what other tasks can be ‘put on the back burner’, or redistributed ,to be replaced by the latest project can be a simple way of reminding colleagues or team-leaders of ongoing tasks that may have been overlooked or forgotten. This can lead to acknowledgement of ongoing achievements, reassessing team workloads and priorities, and refocusing on core objectives.

Be confident

Show your confidence in how you speak or present your response. Giving an unclear answer such as ‘I’ll try’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ can feel helpful in the moment, but it can also build a sense of false expectation. If you already know the answer, or have reasonable misgivings you feel able to articulate, it could be worth discussing things in the moment, rather than using delay tactics.

If you feel that securing a little more time to explain your concerns could be beneficial, it can be worth using examples such as, ‘I’ll give it some thought, but I am already working on X and Y projects at the moment’ or ‘Can I get back to you on that? It sounds like an interesting idea, but I believe X has tried something similar before’.

Be firm

If a colleague is persistent, and continues to try and find creative ways to urge or cajole you into saying ‘Yes’, stand your ground. Go over the reasons why you chose to say no in the first place. If things haven’t changed, try to remain firm in your decision. Offering other solutions, or redirecting them to somewhere or someone else who may be able to help, can be a good way to still offer your support without dramatically increasing your workload.

Be specific

Ensure you tailor your response to the situation at hand. While your direct colleagues may understand how much you have on your plate, your boss might not; it can feel intimidating to push back on new tasks from those in positions of power.

To get around feeling awkward, or worries that your response may sound passive-aggressive, it can help to frame your response in a more flattering way, such as, ‘Thank you for thinking of me for this opportunity/project. I was planning on spending this week/next few days on X, Y and Z’.

This can create the opportunity to reprioritise your planned workload, as well as to allowing the boss to reassess whether this new task is as time-sensitive or important as previously thought.

Be inquisitive and thorough

Before saying ‘No’ to a colleague or supervisor, make sure to ask the right questions. Ensure you fully understand the task – this could include the timeframe, parameters, how success will be measured, how it may impact your work, or that of others. It’s OK to ask for a few hours or days to consider things and formulate valid reasons for your answer.

While a task may sound overwhelming or impossible to complete today or this week, discovering it isn’t actually expected to be completed for another three or four weeks may make it seem more manageable. Other tasks, such as implementing new workflows, or strategies, may seem daunting at the outset; understanding how these will be evaluated weeks or months down the line can help increase motivation or turn a reluctant ‘Yes’ into a more enthusiastic one when you realise all the overall time and stress it may save in the long run.

Offer alternatives

It’s not always what we say, but how we say it, which our colleagues remember; developing the ability to say ‘No’ in a constructive way – or masking your negativity – can go down much better with colleagues. Offering alternative solutions, which may take less time or fewer resources, may enable you to provide assistance without taking on additional stress or strain mentally, physically, or emotionally.

Consider the impact

Instead of focusing on the negative, reframe your decision to say ‘No’ by acknowledging the hidden positives. Each time you say ‘No’ to a new task you are also saying ‘Yes’ to something else – whether that’s freeing up time to help other team members or work on other projects, decreasing your stress levels, or easing the emotional pressure on you.

‘No’ can be a powerful tool to help address your work/life balance, decreasing the impact workplace stresses can have on time spent with family, friends, or your own wellbeing.

Build (and maintain) your reputation

Your reputation can have a huge impact on the reception your responses receive. While saying ‘No’ can be empowering, making sure you first have a strong reputation for your good work ethic, enthusiasm for your job, and a willingness to say ‘Yes’ is important.

Make sure to create a reputation as a reliable, dedicated employee who can deliver. This will build a level of trust and goodwill that can help support and validate the instances where you do chose to make a stand and highlight other priorities or responsibilities.

Weigh up the cost (and benefits)

If a co-worker is asking for help with something you have little experience of, or interest in, it can be worth taking into account your skillset. If you have the time to spare, helping out regardless of your personal interest can be a good way to strengthen team bonds and show yourself to be a team player whilst gaining experience in a new area.

If you do decide against helping with this particular task, make sure that your ‘No’ is polite and honest; saying you are too busy to help, and then being seen to support more exciting projects or opportunities, could risk damaging working relationships.

Instead, try a polite version of the real reason why you are saying ‘No’; for example, you may say, ‘That sounds like an exciting opportunity, but I’m inexperienced with social media so may not be the best person to help set-up a company Instagram account or manage the Twitter, feed in this instance’.

Try to consider both the immediate cost – in time, stress, or energy – against the long-term gain – increased skills, easier processes in place, stronger team bonds. A short-term cost for a significant long-term gain can be worth switching to a ‘Yes’ in some instances; give yourself the time to weigh these up, if possible.

Consider why you avoid saying ‘No’

What is it that stops you from saying ‘No’? Are you worried about hurting a colleague’s feelings? Perhaps letting your team down is your biggest concern, creating distance or damaging how others perceive you?

We all feel the pressure to say ‘Yes’ when we know we should really be saying ‘No’ for any number of reasons – but this need to be seen as the ‘go-to person’ can override our misgivings. Identifying the reasons behind our misgivings is the first step towards addressing them.

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