Why is saying no at work so difficult? Because it's human to want to help! We want to please, we want to be polite, to be seen in a positive light, to be considered as competent, hardworking and dedicated and we are afraid of not being appreciated otherwise. This is even more true when having just joined a company or when aiming for a promotion.
Yet in some circumstances a well-justified “no” is better than a counterproductive “yes”. It may not seem obvious but saying no also means exercising one's freedom: free to choose, free to decide, free not to be passive. Knowing how to say no, when turning something down is legitimate, is as important as knowing how to assert yourself, prioritize your work, know your limits. It is also key to avoid finding yourself in delicate situations leading to frustration, stress or even failure.
So why is it so important to say no? And how do you learn to say no without hurting your interlocutor or fearing being frowned upon?
Saying no: it’s tough ... but critical
There are very legitimate fears behind our difficulty to say no. Will I be accepted if I go against the grain? Will I disappoint my team? Will I still be well regarded if I decline something? Will I sound hurtful or too individualistic if I refuse to help someone in difficulty?
Fear of the judgment of others, fear of not being up to the task, fear of not being appreciated ... These are all fears that make us say yes even when we know we are unable to adequately respond to the request.
Yet saying yes systematically is not a solution. Very often it is even the best way to disappoint, to create false hopes. Not knowing to say no can be a demotivating factor that can impact self-esteem. Saying yes at the expense of your well-being can become toxic in the long run. Succeeding in saying no is also what allows you to say yes more with more confidence. Far from selfishness and ill will, saying no is above all a pledge of:
- Common sense. Saying no to that colleague who needs last minute help when you yourself have important tasks that need to be completed Saying no to a very late meeting on a weekday when there is no real urgency. There is nothing exaggerated or foolish in your refusal. Because you feel these things would be totally counterproductive.
- Sincerity. Why say that you can return this file three days before the scheduled date when it is technically impossible, given the workload that this requires? To say no is sometimes to be realistic. Being upfront saves time and makes you more reliable.
- Role-related expertise. By saying no, you are telling the other person that you know your limits, that you know how to protect yourself. If you work in a small start-up and your manager asks you to manage the end-of-month closing because the accountant is on sick leave, to say no is simply to be aligned with your mission.. You know you don't have the skills to meet expectations; to pretend otherwise would be unprofessional.
- Self-knowledge. Are you drowning in work and still being asked for more? You know that by accepting you are running the risk of a burnout.
Using common sense, being transparent, knowing one’s limits and respecting each other are all attitudes that help to better manage requests and expectations.
If you feel you are right, don’t be afraid to disappoint others and keep your thoughts to yourself. When used correctly, saying no can even help you gain credibility.
Saying no also means being in line with your personal values, avoiding being manipulated or doing missions against your will. If changing the numbers in a contract without telling the parties doesn't feel right, it’s probably because it isn’t. It is therefore preferable to decline and dare to assert your values of integrity and honesty.
How to say no?
Learning to say no and to be assertive can be difficult in some situations. To be more comfortable and express your views without feeling guilty, you need to know first your own limits. Assertiveness comes from experience and will help you know how to say yes or no the right way. It's about being able to clearly express your ideas, feelings and opinions without appearing abrupt or disrespectful. Just like self-confidence and self-esteem, being clear about your ideas is something that can be earned and will help you both as a person and professional.
Start by training yourself by spontaneously declining insignificant solicitations. For more complex situations, on the other hand, saying no requires a minimum of preparation.
Here are four tips to learn to say no without stressing out:
Take some time to think about the situation: listen to your intuition and weigh the pros and cons. There is no rush, your interlocutor can surely spare a few minutes to let you think. Indeed, refusing an offer can be a major source of anxiety. Taking a break and a deep breath will help you better manage your stress at work. If you have more time, you can put your thoughts on paper to better structure your speech. Finally, rehearsing will allow you to identify how comfortable and natural you are when speaking.
Formulate your answer with rational arguments. A justified “no” will always be understood. Your decision must therefore be based on tangible facts that will help the other person to understand your decision. You're refusing to take part in yet another meeting that takes place just before your big annual presentation? Don't settle for a simple "I can't". Explain that you are currently working on the presentation which requires a lot of concentration and that you need this time to prepare yourself and do your job well. It is important to take the time to explain your choices to avoid causing misunderstanding or embarrassment to the other person. Argue intelligibly and try to adopt a calm and collected tone. Accepting to say no by adopting this posture is proof of your emotional intelligence and will make a good impression on your interlocutor.
Set clear rules for yourself. For example, you can force yourself to say no:
- When you can delegate. If someone on your team can handle a project, don't hesitate to give him the task. You first can ask your team members if they are interested. Make sure you share with him all the details he needs to be independent. Empowering your team members is proof of your trust and can strengthen their sense of belonging within the team.
- To “urgent” requests which are not really important. Prioritizing your tasks is essential for a better organization and to be more productive. The Eisenhower Matrix, for example, can simply help you differentiate between the importance and urgency of different requests. Listen and take a step back to define your real priorities.
- Unprepared Meetings, meetings with too many guests, or unrealistically long meetings.Too many meetings is not an isolated case at work and can waste the time of your entire team. If this is recurring and these team meetings do not seem constructive, think about new and more dynamic formats. If you are not essential to the meeting, simply ask your team members to share with you a brief summary at the end of the meeting if appropriate.
- Don’t overthink the possible reaction of your interlocutor. When an opinion is expressed with respect and worded in the right way, it is quite unlikely that it will be perceived negatively. Being able to say no is proof of self-confidence and ease within a team. Use your arguments to get rid of the guilt. What are you particularly afraid of? To disappoint, to be criticized, rejected, or to be seen as incompetent? Take a step back from the situation. Refusing a deadline because it seems impossible to you will surely have no impact on the way you are perceived within your team. Either way, playing down the situation will help you assert yourself and set your limits.
This approach will allow you to say no with more confidence. Remember, however, to use diplomacy and empathy when doing so: transparency and rudeness are not the same thing! Being able to clearly state your ideas and needs with respect and clarity is something that you can acquire over time; it is a skill like any other. Acting with kindness will be beneficial in maintaining healthy and authentic relationships with the people on your team. Don't hesitate to adopt an open posture, offering alternatives, and encouraging discussion. Don't imply that you will say no to every next request.
Next time, you'll be happy to say… yes!