Six Ways to Say “No”

Picture the scene – you’ve had a full-on day; your head is spinning with a jumbled to-do list and you’ve still got work to do before you can head home and make that all important gym session / parents evening / drink with friends.

Then out of nowhere, a colleague asks if you can help with an urgent request that’s just come in.  For reasons you simply can’t fathom, the words ‘Yes, OK’ can be heard coming out of your mouth.

How did that happen? How did you just agree to do something when you’re already snowed under, desperately trying to keep on top of your own work and attempting (unsuccessfully) to develop a better work/life balance?

Do you find yourself saying ‘Yes’ to things when you really should be saying ‘No’?   Is this a trap you fall into occasionally or something you seem to do habitually? Do you say ‘Yes’ without really thinking about it and then kick yourself afterwards? Do you say ‘Yes’ and then harbour resentment towards the person who made the request? Or do you simply feel obliged to say ‘Yes’ because of the relationship you have with the person making the request?

If you fall into any of these traps, developing the skill and confidence to say ‘No’ is worth exploring.  If you can confidently say ‘No’ you’re less likely to…

  • over commit then under-deliver
  • agree to something you’d rather not do or feel unable to do
  • be seen as a pushover.

So what are your options for saying ‘No’?  Here are six ways to say ‘No’.  If they’re not already in your repertoire, add them in and use the most appropriate one when you need to.


1. The Direct ‘No’

When someone asks you to do something you can’t do or don’t want to do, just say ‘No’.  Be direct and succinct and don’t over-apologise.  “No, I’m sorry.  I can’t do that.” Don’t over-elaborate as the other person may think they will be able convince you to do it.  You might choose the ‘Direct No’ when the person making the request is someone you do not have a relationship with (or where the relationship is more of a passing one).

2. The Reasoned ‘No’

Give a brief and genuine refusal without opening up further negotiation and avoid over-apologising. Say why it isn’t possible or why you don’t want to do it. “No, I can’t help you because I have a client meeting I need to prepare for, which is my top priority today.”  Studies have shown that saying ‘because’ and giving a clear reason is more likely to get acceptance from others.   Don’t be tempted to provide a long list of reasons why you can’t help.  They will sound like excuses and will make you appear unauthentic.  Stick to one clear reason and leave it at that.


3. The Negotiating ‘No’

This is a way of saying ‘No’ to a specific request without giving a definite ‘No’.   Rather than being a complete rejection of the request, the ‘Negotiating No’ opens up the possibility of negotiating an alternative option.  “I can’t get involved in the proposal writing today but I’d be happy to review the first draft and do some editing tomorrow morning.”


4. The Enquiring ‘No’ (also known as the ‘Maybe’)

You may hear something in the request that is potentially of interest but perhaps they haven’t provided enough information or have limited their request to one specific way they want your help. If you don’t want to make an immediate commitment, say something like “I’m not sure at this stage if I’m able to/want to commit to this, can you tell me more about…the project/the lunch/the meeting? …how you see me being involved? …what you’d like me to do? …what you’re trying to achieve?”

5. The Alternative Solution ‘No’

You have a clear reason for saying ‘No,’ which you provide (the ‘Reasoned No’) but rather than leaving it there, provide alternative suggestions.  “Have you thought about asking Natasha to help you, this is something she’s done before, so she might be a better person to involve.”  or “How about delaying this until the next team meeting then you can get input from everyone?”  Providing an alternative solution demonstrates that you are interested in helping, even if you can’t commit to the original request.


6. The Delayed ‘No’ (which could result in a ‘Yes’)

Use the ‘Delayed No’ if you want more time to think about a request instead of deciding on the spot. It may not be clear-cut even after you’ve asked questions, so it’s important to give yourself thinking time. The pressure of someone standing over you or waiting on the phone may sway you to say ‘Yes’.  When you step away from the interaction you can get the clarity you need to make the decision more objectively. “I’d like to think about… how this fits in with my priorities at the moment …whether this is something I’d like to get involved in …Let me have a think and I’ll come back you this afternoon.”


So next time you want to say ‘No’ but can feel the internal pull to say ‘Yes’ remember that you DO have choices.  You can say ‘No’ in several different ways depending on the situation.

Saying ‘No’ doesn’t mean you’re being selfish or unhelpful, it means you’re valuing your personal boundaries and commitments and making conscious decisions about how to manage those, while balancing them with the needs of others.

Posted by Gill Bonello


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