How to say no


How to say no

The guilt free guide to turning something down

Rachel Clements, Director of Psychological Services, Centre for Corporate Health


Why is it that we find it so difficult to say one simple word… Is it because we think we’ll come across as selfish or feel like a bad person? Is it because saying yes makes us feel popular and valued? Is it because we fear turning down someone will be a career limiting move?

Whatever your reason, it’s time to stop saying yes when you need to say no because not doing so will increase your risk of stress and eventually lead to burnout. In fact, if you learn to become more confident and competent in saying no, you’re likely to find that you become more productive and more efficient in everything you do.

Be Assertive

Assertiveness is one of the most important communication skills you’ll need to develop if you’re to become truly effective in saying no.

Unfortunately, most people aren’t naturally assertive. (And that includes most lawyers.) When someone asks us to do something, we’ll usually become passive or submissive. That means we don’t contribute constructively to the situation and sometimes, we actually make it worse.

For example, think of a time when you’ve been unable to say no to request you really should have turned down. Did you find yourself feeling totally overwhelmed, stretched and working around the clock to get things done? Or think back to a time when you even failed to deliver on a task because you took too much on. Did it lead to disappointment all round and even affect your professional reputation?

Perhaps in the haste to get things done you’ve turned in work that wasn’t up to your usual standard. Maybe you’ve spread yourself too thin and felt like you weren’t doing a good job in any area.

If you’ve had any of these common experiences, ask yourself: “can I afford to take the risk of not saying no?” After all your health, performance and reputation are all important if you’re to have a successful career.

Barriers to saying no

Learning all of the communication skills in the world won’t help unless you believe you actually have the right to say no. So before we can learn how to say no in a respectful manner, we first need to explore any barriers we might have. Here are some of the common blocks that prevent people from saying no.

  • Not believing you have the right to say “no” to requests or demands, even though you can’t meet them.
  • Your self-worth depends on others’ approval and acceptance, therefore saying no means risking possible rejection.
  • You perceive saying no as disruptive, so it’s better not to “rock the boat”.
  • You feel you won’t be able to cope with a negative reaction or the negative consequences of saying no.
  • You fear permanently losing opportunities.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Usually the fears that prevent us from being able to say no are simply false beliefs that we perceive to be reality. So if you find that some of the barriers above apply to you ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the worst thing that will happen if you say no?
  • What evidence do you have to suggest that this scenario is likely?
  • If it happens, will you handle it?
  • What are the risks involved in not saying no?

Getting to no

The reality is that people are almost always okay with you saying no so long as you say it in a constructive and empathetic manner. So the secret is all about how we actually go about it.

People only really get disappointed when their expectations are not met. That means saying no is really all about setting people’s expectations in the first place.

Here are some examples of how to say no in some common situations:

  1. Someone asks you to undertake a task when you are at capacity
    “I understand you really need this done quickly. However, I’m juggling several tasks right now and won’t be able to finish this one by the deadline”.
  2. Someone asks you to undertake a task where the deadline is negotiable.
    “I’d really like to assist you but I’ve already committed to other projects for today. How about I make it a priority first thing in the morning? I should be able to get in back to you by late afternoon. How does that work for you?”
  3. Someone asks you for five minutes of your time when you’re already time poor and when you know it will take much longer 
    “I’d really like to talk to you about this but now isn’t a good time for me. How about I come and see you at 2pm and we catch up then?”
  4. Some makes a request and you need some time to make up your mind about whether you take it on. 
    “Let me come back to you once I’ve had a chance to think about it and look at my diary”.
  5. Someone asks you to help out with something which isn’t in your area of expertise or you don’t have time to do it.
    “I’m probably not the best person to assist you with this. However, I can recommend Jo who’d be able to help”.

Once we’ve overcome our fears about saying no and have realised that it’s not as bad as we might believe, we can actually start to say no with confidence. And, with practice, saying no is likely to make you feel happier, healthier and to ultimately better at your job.