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Saying No Professionally: How to Say No at Work

Tired of nodding your way into overcommitment? Left wondering how on earth you’ve ended up with a Sisyphean scroll of work tasks? Answered yes to both of those because that’s your default response? It’s high time to learn the art of saying no professionally so you can regain control of your workload, reduce stress, and build trust with your boss and teammates.

Saying no is tough, even more so in a professional setting. How do you tell your manager you can’t help them with another presentation without feeling like you’re dropping the teamwork baton? The truth is, you can’t say yes to everything and keep everyone happy, least of all yourself. So do your mental health, workload and colleagues a favor and start setting healthy boundaries.

The simplest way to do this (seriously, it’s just two letters!) is to start saying no – in the right way, of course. Let’s explore why it’s important to not agree to everything, why we find it hard to say no, as well as when and how to decline requests in a way that benefits all parties involved. 

The Importance of Saying No

It might be strange to consider the art of saying no as a skill, but in reality, it absolutely is! While it’s not something you’d shout about as your standout strength in a job interview, saying no – when done thoughtfully – is indicative of other desirable traits, like effective communication and leadership skills. It’s an easy way to establish boundaries and assert yourself and will help you to manage your work while maintaining great relationships with your colleagues. 

Not blurting out yes to every ask also helps safeguard some of your most important resources – time and energy. It will let you turn your attention to tasks and projects that better align with your goals and priorities. So, while ‘no’ seems like a restrictive statement, it’s actually a useful growth tool for both your personal and professional life!

Why We Struggle to Say No

We’ve all been there. Saying yes to every request that comes your way because it feels like the ‘right’ thing to do. It’s especially tempting when you’re starting a new job and want to make a good first impression. We often find ourselves saying yes for a bunch of reasons, and it’s precisely these reasons that make saying no so darn important. 

You are a people pleaser

It’s natural to want to be helpful and accommodating, but when you always say yes to please others, you might end up overextending yourself. Being swamped with extra work is a fast-track pass to feeling burnt out.

You are early in your career

When you’re just starting out in your career, eager and raring to go, there’s often the desire to prove yourself and show that you’re a dedicated team player. You may end up saying yes to every task that comes your way, even if it’s beyond your scope. 

It’s a compulsive response

For some, saying yes is a knee-jerk reaction. It might be a habit developed over time, possibly out of fear of disappointing others. Denying requests may feel peculiar but it could do wonders for your personal growth.

You want to avoid confrontation

Sometimes saying no can feel uncomfortable, especially for you conscientious folk who may fear conflict or hate disappointing people. The challenge of uttering that two-letter word means that your own obligations or boundaries may be overshadowed. 

Now that we’ve discussed your ‘yes addiction’ triggers, you’re ready to take the first step in empowering yourself to say no when it matters most. It’s time to start saying no so you can start saying yes to your own needs and commitments.

When to Say No

Even though it may seem counterintuitive, knowing how to politely decline requests from your colleagues or employer can benefit everyone involved. Let’s look at a few scenarios where saying no can be beneficial.

When the request is out of your scope

If a task falls far outside your job description, saying no ensures you stay focused on your core responsibilities. It also saves you from spending way too long trying to figure out how to meet the demand and coming up empty-handed. That’s added stress you don’t need. Speaking of added stress…

When you want to prevent burnout

Your mental health is paramount and taking on too much additional work can cause burnout. Setting boundaries and managing your workload will help you combat stress, keep you productive, and maintain your overall job satisfaction.

To showcase your skills

While saying yes to requests may feel like a more natural way of demonstrating your abilities and proving yourself, saying no speaks volumes. Done the right way, saying no highlights healthy communication and leadership skills. It also exhibits strategic decision-making, as you determine where best to invest your time and energy.

To maintain your credibility

Overcommitting and not being able to deliver on promises can damage your credibility. So as baffling as it sounds, saying no will help your coworkers and managers rely on you to get your work done.

When you’re on holiday or out of office

This is a very specific example but perhaps the most important. Respect your time and help set the same standard for others. Barring a nuclear reactor meltdown where you’re the sole expert on the protocol, most requests can wait. Your time off is precious and this type of boundary shouldn’t be overstepped. 

Of course, when we talk about saying no, we don’t mean just uttering a blunt ‘no’ and slamming the door in someone’s face. While it’s hard to deny we all haven’t daydreamed about doing that at least once, it probably wouldn’t go down very well (read: it definitely wouldn’t go down well). Saying no is only a skill when you say it in the right way. 

How to Say No

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. We’ve talked about the ‘whys’ and the ‘whens’ of saying no, but how do you actually do it? When it comes to your colleagues and employer, you need to find the balance between assertiveness and respect. Saying no can be as much about how you say it as the actual refusal itself. 

1. Be clear and direct

Don’t beat around the bush! Be straightforward and use direct language. Avoid saying things like ‘maybe’ or ‘I’m not sure’. 

2. Provide an explanation

Soften the blow of your refusal by explaining why you are saying no. You don’t need to give a long-winded explanation, just a simple answer so the person understands why you have declined. 

3. Be firm but polite

While you do have to be firm on your answer, use polite language and a respectful tone. Express gratitude for being asked and apologize for not being able to help.

4. Offer alternatives 

If possible, you can offer an alternative solution or compromise that is more in line with your capacity. Maybe you could recommend another coworker who has the right expertise. This shows that you’re still willing to help! 

Saying no the right way will help you set clear boundaries without giving off the wrong impression to your coworkers or employer. Just remember to be direct but polite, offer context but keep it simple, and if you want to show off your problem-solving skills, provide another solution. 

We’ve all experienced the pangs of regret from saying yes when we should have declined. Saying no may not be the easiest task but it will lead to healthier work relationships, transparent boundaries and a more productive work environment for you and your colleagues. Remember, this isn’t about becoming the ‘no person’, it’s about becoming the ‘know-how-to-say-no person’. 

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Posted on Sep 22, 2023