how to say no at work

Learning How to Say No Can Help You At Work

You make a commitment. Then you make another. Before you know it, you’re making yet another commitment. It’s a never-ending cycle that can lead to burnout.

One of the most important things to remember is that time is finite. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never have enough time to do everything. However, once you truly accept that you can’t do it all, you can begin to prioritize your time. Doing this gives more opportunities to do the things that you really need to do, rather than the things that you feel you should do, like helping others.

The Benefits of Saying No

Learning how to say “no” politely is the first real step to stop over-committing and better prioritizing your time. As you will soon see, there are many other benefits to saying no. In actuality, there are many more than are discussed here. These are some of the most important and represent a solid starting point on your journey to saying no.

Reduce Stress

In many instances, simply saying no goes a long way when it comes to reducing stress. Have you ever agreed to do something, only to feel the stress and pressure of actually getting it done? If so, you’re definitely not alone. It happens to everyone. No one is immune to the pressure of saying no.

Adding undue stress to your life is unhealthy. It can make you feel physically ill and can often cause strain between you and the person you’re trying to help.

Learning to say no is actually one of the easiest ways to reduce stress. It doesn’t cost anything. The only requirement is changing the way you look at things.

Save Time

There are only so many hours in a day. Even the richest person in the world can’t buy more time. The good news is, even though your hours are limited, you’re in complete control of how you use them. Don’t let other people dictate how you spend your time, by expecting you to help them whenever they see fit. If they really appreciate you, they’ll understand why you can’t always help, at the drop of a hat. Sometimes you simply need to make it clear that you have your own set of priorities and responsibilities.

Increase Focus

It doesn’t hurt to say “yes” to people, when the things they need assistance with are relative to your own goals. If it sparks your interest, it’s all the better! You might even have fun doing it. This actually helps you to increase the focus of your own life, which in turn helps you both professionally and in your personal life. Typically, the more focused you are, the easier it is to achieve both short-term and long-term goals.

Gain Strength

When you take the time to think about it, each time you say “no” to someone else, you’re actually saying “yes” to yourself. Chances are you’ll soon notice a boost in your self-confidence level. In addition, nine times out of 10, you’ll gain the respect of the person who asked for your help. He or she may initially be unhappy with your answer, but most colleagues and managers who value you and your time, typically won’t hold a grudge.

More Energy

Assisting with projects that you really don’t have time for, or have little interest in doing is a huge energy waster. It’s much more productive to put that same energy into something that interests you. You’ll feel better, you’ll be much happier, and will be more productive in the long run.

“No is a complete sentence and so often we forget that…” ~ Susan Gregg

Why Saying No Gets You Ahead

Saying “no” helps you to stay true to yourself by sticking to your goals, tasks and responsibilities. It reduces distractions, which sometimes cause you to get behind on the most important things in your job. Learning how to say “no” with conviction can reduce the feelings of guilt that often come with turning down a request.

how to say no at work

“Boundary setting is really a huge part of time management.” ~ Jim Loehr

Setting Boundaries

When you learn to say “no,” you set boundaries for yourself and the people around you. The ability to do this is probably one of the most important things you can do for yourself. Setting clear boundaries means that you’ll typically be presented with less intrusions and distractions, because others will know when they’re stepping over the line.

If you are a people pleaser, some people will still try to take advantage of your helpful nature. However, by taking the time to set firm boundaries, you’ll eliminate some of the problem.

You can’t always be “there” for everyone. It’s physically impossible. When you to set limits to what you will and won’t do, ahead of time, you make decision-making much easier.

Why People Resist Saying No

In general, people dislike telling others, “No.” You’d think that it would be the easiest thing in the world to do. After all, most of us started saying, “No,” when we were two years old, or younger. It’s not like we don’t know how to say it…or do we? There are many reasons why people resist saying no. The reasons are personal for each person and set of circumstances. However, here are a few of the more common reasons why people have a difficult time telling others, “No.”

  • The Desire to Help – Kind-hearted people are more inclined to want to help someone. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with kindness. In fact, most people will tell you that the world needs more of it. However, don’t let people take advantage of your good nature. Remember, you’re only one person. You can’t help everyone, even though you’d like to.
  • Fear of Conflict – No one likes the thought of an uncomfortable confrontation, especially with people who are in more senior positions than you. The possibility of being rejected or having to deal with negative consequences (sometime in the future) are just two examples of why you may not be able to resist the urge to help someone.
  • Burning Bridges – It’s never wise to burn your bridges, especially at work. Some people take “no” as a sign of rejection. A severed relationship is entirely possible although it doesn’t happen as often as you might think. Think twice before burning bridges. It may seem like a good idea at the time, especially if you’re dealing with animosity. However, once burned, bridges often take a long time to rebuild. Don’t take the chance! It is important to learn how to say no without burning bridges.
  • Lost Opportunities – The mere thought of lost opportunities is a concern for many people. The fear of losing a client or promotion can cause you to commit to something that you really don’t want to commit to. What you have to remember is that opportunities pop up when least expected. Just because you let one pass you by, doesn’t mean there isn’t another one waiting for you in the pipeline.
  • Afraid of Being Rude – Depending on your age or cultural upbringing, you may feel as though saying “no” is rude. If this sounds like an issue that you’re constantly dealing with, now is a good time to attempt to change your way of thinking. It’s entirely possible to refuse to help someone in a kind manner. Simply be honest and relate the reason or reasons that prevent you from offering your assistance. Most people will understand your dilemma.

“We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.'” ~ Tom Friel

Having the Confidence to Say No

Typically, the more confidence you have, the easier it is to say no. Consider these four confidence-building tips, if your confidence is in need of a little boost.

1. Face Your Fears – It’s never easy to face your fears. However, when you do it successfully, there’s almost no better feeling. One of the biggest keys to accomplishing this is to take baby steps, one step at a time. It won’t happen overnight. However, every time you face your fears, your confidence level increases. In many cases, the old saying is true. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

2. Use Your Imagination – Imagination is an amazing thing. It’s not that difficult to use yours to boost your confidence, which in turn makes it easier for you to say no. Visualization is one of the best ways to accomplish this. For example, visualize that you’re going to and important meeting. Imagine yourself greeting the other attendees in a positive manner. Envision yourself smiling and enjoying the interaction. Watch the events unfolding in your mind, as you ask interesting questions and share informative answers. This is a very effective way to increase your self-confidence. When you can visualize yourself being successful, being confident is just that much easier.

3. Improve Your Social Skills – Improving your social skills is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. This automatically helps you to sustain and improve your relationships, across the board. A few ways you can do this include learning about the basics of body language, discovering how NOT to make mistakes in conversation and the best ways to make a good impression. Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Don’t waste it!

4. Dress for Success – If someone tells you that their self-confidence isn’t affected by their outward appearance, most notably by the way they dress, they’re probably not being completely truthful. Dressing for success is important for several reasons. It has the ability to put you in a better mood, give you an air of authority, make you look more professional and give you a competitive advantage… just to name a few. Dressing for success also has something to do with the way people interact with you. Unfortunately, poorly dressed people are often looked down upon, which isn’t fair and does absolutely nothing for their self-confidence.

All of these things help to boost your self-confidence and make it less stressful to say “no,” when you need to. Being confident makes you stronger and less afraid of the “fallout” which may occur, should you tell someone that you are unavailable to assist, even if it is a reasonable request.

“Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.” ~ Seth Godin

Learning to Identify a Reasonable Request

Ask a dozen people to give you the definition of a “reasonable” request and you’ll probably get at least seven or eight different answers. Before you learn to identify this type of request, you have to come up with your own definition of the word.

There will be times when you can rule out if something is reasonable, right away. For example, if your manager phones you at home and asks you to go in to work on a Sunday, you automatically know that that’s an extremely unreasonable request.

However, there are times when you have to consider all aspects of the request, before you decide how to proceed. An example of this might be expected to write a report in 48 hours or less. Some people, who don’t have much on their calendar, might be able to achieve this goal quite easily.

Depending on the word count of the report and the person’s expertise, he or she could probably knock it out within that period and have time to spare. On the other hand, someone with a busy schedule and limited knowledge on the subject would have a hard time completing the project on time.

With that being said, you can see why each request should be considered carefully. Examining the details helps you decide if the request is reasonable, given the circumstances, within your ability, and in your best interest. In the event that you’re initially unsure, sleep on it for at least 24 hours. You’ll probably be surprised by how clear everything seems after a proper night’s rest.

“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes to quickly and not saying no soon enough.” ~ Josh Billings

How to Say No At Work

Saying no at work is a bit different from saying no to your family and friends. Relationships with co-workers are typically not as intimate. Be gentle and honest. Don’t offer false hope by saying “maybe” or “I’ll see what I can do,” unless you mean it. Doing so just drags it out for everyone.

Time Constraints – If you know that you can’t participate for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to admit it. It’s better to say no from the beginning than beg off at the end. If you find that you are able to participate in the end, people are usually happy to see an extra pair of hands and will welcome your unexpected surprise.

Meetings – Depending on your role and schedule, you may be in a position to minimize the number of meetings you attend or the number of committees you sit on. This can give you more time so you don’t have to tell your colleagues “no.” When it comes to meetings, if it’s not essential that you make an appearance ask yourself how the meeting will benefit you. If you can’t come up with a good answer, don’t go.

Volunteering – Do you often find yourself volunteering at work? If you enjoy helping out, that’s great! If you don’t want to help, say so, nicely, of course. Another employee will probably be more than happy to volunteer in your place.

Work Hours – Make a habit of refusing to answer work-related phone calls on the weekends and your days off, unless it’s an emergency. Let calls go to your answering machine or voice mail message and respond in work hours.

Type of Work – If you are concerned that saying “no” will jeopardize your employment, speak with a supervisor or “higher up” to explain the situation. Do so as soon as possible, while conversations are still fresh in your mind. Unless what you’re being asked to do is part of your job description, you generally have the right to dispute doing something.

Communicating the NO – When you have to say “no,” it’s recommended that you always do so in person. If you use e-mail, it’s easy for the recipient to misconstrue what you’re saying and you don’t want that to happen. Work-place tension is never good. Take the extra steps to avoid misunderstandings.

How to Say NO. Start with never saying 'Yes' to someone's request without first checking your to-do list and diary. Click To Tweet

Saying No

  • “Now Is Not a Good Time.” Consider this answer when you get requests for help and your plate is full. This lets people know that you’re willing to help, but you simply don’t have the time. Tell them that you’ll be in contact as soon as your calendar clears. It’s a wonderful way to say “no” without making people feel as though they’re not important.
  • “Let Me Think About It.” This response is more of a “maybe,” than it is anything else. It gives you a chance to think about whether or not you want to participate. When giving this answer, indicate how long it will take you to make up your mind. This helps to prevent repeated requests before you get back with an answer. Most people will wait a while before contacting you again.
  • “I’m Probably Not the Best Person to Help You with This.” If you immediately realize that you don’t have the ability or resources to help, let people know right away. Go a step further and explain the reasons, so they understand that you really don’t have the experience to help. In the event that you know someone who does have the ability or experience, don’t be afraid to pass the information along. If it’s a workable match, both participants will thank you for it.
  • “I’m Sorry, I Can’t.” Each time you can say, “I’m sorry, I can’t,” without hesitation, saying “no”, is easier to do. Remember, this is the most direct response you can give to someone who is asking for help.

Don’t convince yourself that being direct will automatically create a barrier between you and that person. Nine times out of 10, you will be surprised that your answer isn’t as harsh as it seems.

“Focusing is about saying no.” ~ Steve Jobs

How to Soften the Blow with a Counter Offer

Sometimes, when working with clients or customers, a counter offer may be a good option. You don’t say “no” but you are offering something else. If they decline your counter offer, you are left in a good position. You can confidently and easily give them a firm “no” because you already offered a solution, which they rejected.

Saying no won’t be easy at first. For some people, it may never be simple, but you have your own health and well-being to consider. The people who care about you will more than likely understand.

The Bottom Line

Remember, saying no does not make you a bad or selfish person. On the contrary, it generally makes you healthier and happier. More importantly, saying no doesn’t mean you can’t help those who you really want to help. After all, everyone needs help at one time or another.

“What you don’t do, determines what you can do.” ~ Tim Ferriss

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