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Learning To Say No
Part of being a good employee or a good colleague is being helpful, right? Well,
sometimes. In general, yes, you should of course be helpful, but not all the time.
Here's the issue.
Far too often, people feel compelled to always help. That's why they constantly
say yes and never gain comfort in saying no. As a result, their productivity and the
quality of their work can slip. It doesn't have to be that way.
Saying no effectively is a skill you can learn. In this short course, I'll make sure you
know how to determine whether or not it makes sense to say no when others are
seeking help, and I'll help you figure out exactly how to say it so that others really
Deciding what matters most
Let's think about determining when it makes sense to say no.
As a quick caveat, in this course we're only talking about how to say no when
someone is seeking your assistance on a short-term basis, for a few minutes or a
few hours. We're not talking about how to say no to proposed role changes at
work or how to say no to various types of promotions.
Step one is deciding what matters most. You don't want to say yes to everything
when people ask for your help, and you don't want to always say no, either. The
goal is to be confident you're choosing the right option. To do that, you'll need to
quickly think through three things.
Your first thought should be about the objective importance of the work. I like to
think in terms of the famous Pareto Principle, sometimes referred to as the 80-20
rule. The idea is simple, 20% of the work you're working on is truly important, it
generates 80% of the value you add at work. The other 80% of your work, well
that's not unimportant, it's just not as important. It's really just work you have to
You should think about what matters most to you. That includes your normal
duties, the work you do that the boss is most interested in, the work most vital to
the group, and so on. Very quickly, you can get a solid gut feeling about whether
or not a particular request honestly involves something important. For those
requests, say yes. For the rest, get ready to say no.
Next you need to think about the person who is requesting your help. Think
about how often they ask you to help out. If it's daily, it might be too often. If they
ask only once a month, when they're truly in a bind, that's normal. Further, think
about the importance of the work they're focused on. Again, 80-20. Is it
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strategically interesting, or just something that needs to get done? When
someone is coming to you less frequently, with fairly important work, that's when
you want to say yes. Otherwise, you should consider saying no. And if you don't
say no when you really should, well, that person will come back again and again.
So you need to realise that you have to make a reasonable attempt to protect
your time at work and never let people walk all over you.
Finally, think about your current workload. When the person approaches you, are
you breathing easily while experiencing a low stress portion of your week? Or are
you very stressed out and facing a tough deadline later in the day? The more
difficult your current workload, the more likely it's smart to say no. It is, however,
useful to think about the true importance of your current work versus the work
your colleague is asking you to support. In the case that they're clearly working on
something more important to the group than your current task, it's smart, maybe
even the right thing to do, to stop and attempt to help them. At least for some
period of time that won't jeopardise your progress that day.
Learning to say no is a valid and important skill. Start by critically thinking about
how important your work is relative to what someone else wants you to focus on.
Be careful not to help someone so habitually that it becomes expected, and of
course, be mindful of your own workload. A quick thought about each of these
will help you make a confident, productive choice about when to say no.
Understand the consequences
Do you think about the consequences? It's one thing to think correctly about how
important a certain chunk of work might be, but it's another thing, altogether, to
deal with the consequences of saying no to a request when the person clearly
wanted to hear a yes.
So let's think about the consequences of saying no. Every single time you choose
to say no, you face a few possibilities, they're not certainties, just possibilities. Your
job is to give them a little conscience thought, so that you can make an informed
choice. For example, if you say no, you could face certain, unexpected relationship
outcomes. You see, what you have to realise is that every task at work takes place
in the context of one or more relationships. To not be helpful, even if you've
thought through the situation and believe it's the right choice can negatively
impact your relationship with the person who made the request. Depending on
the circumstances, the person might question your loyalty, your work ethic,
whether or not you're a team player, and ultimately, how much they like you. This
is where you have to start thinking a little more strategically.
Let's think about short-term versus long-term consequences. In the short term,
the person might have some of the negative thoughts we just mentioned, but
even if they don't have them now, in the long term, they can surface later in any
number of ways. They might be in a position to offer input concerning your
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promotion, they might be asked about you from someone new to the team. Who
knows, they could become your boss. Then, all of a sudden, long after it
happened, that one time you chose to say no could have an odd consequence.
Wait a minute, if that type of thing can happen with one person, what happens
when something like this takes place between you and a handful of people? That
is possible, right? I mean, if you're asked for a quick helping hand by ten people
this month and you make the thoughtful, conscience choice to say no to three of
them, who knows exactly how they'll interpret that and how they might share
their thoughts about you with others? Now, we're not talking simply about
causing a small rift in one relationship, we're now talking about a threat to your
Relax, in here we are trying to stir you up just a little. It's exactly this type of
thinking about what could happen if you say no to people that can quickly spiral
out of control in a person's mind motivating you to always want to say yes. Don't
Just realise that if you follow the advice in this course and you produce quality
work, the odds that these relationship issues actually materialising are very low.
Yes, to say no, poses some risk, but when you say no correctly and create great
work, it's worth it, because after a while, people will learn to respect your time.
Choose a type of explanation
A lot of people think that if you decide to say "no" it's simple, you just say, "no". Not
really, I want you to be a little more thoughtful.
In fact, there are three distinct ways to say "no" in a situation where someone has
asked for your assistance. Let's first think about the most common answer. That's
when you tell the person, "I'm sorry. I'm too busy and "I can't help you right now."
If you thought about it and you really can't help them fine, but that doesn't mean
you can't help them eventually.
The very best way to have someone accept your "no" response is to ensure your
answer doesn't cause any long-term problems. So immediately offer to help them
later. When you say "no", just tell them to hold on one second. Look at your
calendar and say, "How about 2pm? "Can I come by then for a few minutes to
help out?" Now, if you say this, you must follow through at 2pm otherwise, you'll
be saying one thing and doing another. Which of course reduce how much
people trust you.
Your second main option is to say "no" and redirect the person to a resource
better suited to help them. Depending on the nature of the work it might be
common or not terribly challenging for you, but it could be honestly
developmental for someone else. If there is an intern, a junior colleague, or
anyone for whom this work would be interesting, suggest them. Again, you could
be too busy and still be helpful.
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The first two we've mentioned are positive responses even though you're saying
"no". That brings us to another somewhat common but definitely unproductive
response. That's when you decide to tell someone, "That's not my job." This is one
of those sentences that is generally not useful. Even when it's true.
You see, for most jobs, people start with a formalised listing of their job
responsibilities. Often referred to as a job description. When their asked to help
someone else, either because they're way too busy or maybe in a bad mood they
say, "That's not my job." Listen, every time someone says that, others hear more
than, "That's not my job." They hear, "I don't like you." "I don't care about this
team", and "I don't care if you fail." The phrase has become fairly stigmatised so it
is better to, and you must, avoid it for another reason. It's not productive, helpful,
or friendly. Instead, you should help them. Say "no" but help them later, or say
"no" and help them find the assistance they need. I'll admit that in some
situations where a person is trying to take advantage of you, saying, "That's not
my job", might be acceptable, but generally it's not, and it can make you look very
There you go, it's not just about saying "no". It's about saying "no" and maybe still
being helpful. Always resist the urge to say, "That's not my job." And instead
schedule a time to help them later, or at least try to help them find the assistance
they need. When you do, you've actually been helpful, but you've done it in a way
that keeps you productive now.
Communicate your explanation
So you've thought just a little and made your decision to say "no." Good for you,
but you still need to make sure you communicate your decision as clearly as
possible. To pull this off your communication should be brief, honest, positive and
respectful. Let's think about each of these. First is brief, that means short, concise,
not excessive or bloated, saying only what needs to be said in order to convey a
very focused message.
Next is honest, no matter which type of explanation you're offering, it has to be
sincere. Generally, honesty is always the best policy. In addition, when you're
insincere, believe it or not the average person can tell because most of us aren't
Now let's think about why you have to be positive. You're saying no to someone
and your first response to them should not feel like you've got your heels dug in
ready to fight. Make the choice to be mildly positive. You don't want to be giddy
or excited when you say no but simply a little positive.
The last element is respect. You have to use words that convey a general
kindness. You don't want to demean or belittle their work and you don't want to
inflate the importance of your own work. Instead always choose neutral phrasing.
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Let's try an example to show these different characteristics. Let's say your
colleague Maria has approached you looking for assistance and you're confident
you can't help her right now. You might say, "Sorry, Maria, but I can't help right
now "because I'm up against a deadline in about two hours "and it's going to be
close. "I know the report is important. "Let me come see you after lunch when "I
have this wrapped up to work on that." You'll notice I was brief, honest, positive
and respectful. I said no but I also tried to arrange a way to help her later. Or how
about this one, your colleague Adam shows up at your office unannounced and
says, "Hey, can you give me about 30 minutes? "I'm trying to wrap this client
presentation "but lots of the numbers come from your "team and I need to make
sure they're correct." If you're really busy here's one possible productive response.
"Sorry, I'm actually deep in the weeds "with another client proposal. "I know the
one you're working on "and that it's due tomorrow. "How about you go check
with Suzanne "and Tim on my team, either of them can verify the numbers. "I
should be free by about 4pm this afternoon. "If you still have any concerns come
see me "and we'll straighten it out before we leave, okay?" Again, notice that I was
brief and direct, honest, positive and respectful, and ultimately was helpful by
directing him to more appropriate resources.
When you confidently own what you're saying while showing respect for the
other person, it's amazing how well someone will accept your non-affirmative
response especially when they know that most of the time you will cycle back
around, find them and try to be helpful.
Show resolve (and be ready to repeat it)
The truth is that when you learn how to positively and correctly say no, the vast
majority of the time people will understand and accept your statement even if it's
not what they wanted to hear.
There are, however, exceptions times when you need to show a little resolve. It
sometimes happens where a colleague hears you say no, and it doesn't stop
them at all. Then they say, "Oh come on, this is important" or "Please, this is for the
boss" or maybe "I only need five minutes "and this is for our largest client."
Assuming you're dealing with a colleague, and not an upset boss, generally
speaking your best move is to respond to their resolve with resolve of your own.
Your first reaction is to simply repeat yourself. You might show a little more
conviction in your tone for emphasis, but basically you're intentionally being
repetitive. For example, "James I'm sorry, but I can't do that right now "or I'll risk
missing my own deadline less than an hour from now. "I promise I'll come see you
as soon as I'm free." This should end the discussion and get you back to work.
If, however, they persist with yet another plea about the urgency of their work,
and you're confident their task is, give or take, no more important than your work,
it's time to explain that fact. You might say, "You know James, "I've done that
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report before. "I do understand it's importance, "but the one I'm trying to finish "in
the next few minutes is for an even larger client, "so I need to get it done quickly,
Now, I've shown respect for his work, while also correctly proclaiming the
importance of my own work. This is small, but sometimes needed escalation.
Finally, if they still persist and make their request again, something is wrong,
you've misjudged the situation or maybe they're seriously overplaying their hand
because you caught them in a bad mood, who knows. Either way, the smart
move is to now end the interaction.
The only other options are to escalate further emotionally which isn't smart, or to
cave to their request which means in the future you can expect James to do this
to you again. Instead, I want you to draw a line by saying something very succinct
such as this, "James, I'll come by your office at 1:30, "as soon as I've wrapped this
"and grabbed some lunch. Thanks." And, as you finish saying this, turn away from
him before he has a chance to respond. You'll notice I was very brief. I still
professed an honest intention to help them later in the day, but this time I was
not open to a dialogue. In fact, in so many words, I was politely but sternly asking
them to leave.
It's rare this type of exchange goes this far but in the case it does, one smart move
is to follow up with your boss or mentor to talk about what happened and to be
sure you correctly thought through the best way to handle the situation. And
don't forget, when emotions have gone back to normal it never hurts a few days
later to drop in and chat with the person, both to see if they need any help and to
ensure you didn't unintentionally create friction in the relationship.
Saying no effectively is a skill anyone can learn, but that doesn't mean others will
accept your response. Remember the tips we covered and you'll show resolve so
that your decision will be heard.
Watch your body language
We've talked a lot so far about the importance of what you say, when you say it,
and how you say it to ensure you effectively tell someone "No."
Those are all very important parts of the process, but there's another fact you
have to remember and it has nothing to do with your words and everything to do
with your body. Your body language and physical presence have a big impact in
any type of communication situation. But they have an enormous impact on
exchanges that are strained or somehow tense. Thus, being mindful of what your
body is saying is paramount to your success. In this situation, your general goal is
to be respectful, attentive and in the moment, with a neutral or slightly positive
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With that in mind, your first step toward delivering a ‘No’ effectively is to not
multitask. That almost always suggests to another person that you don't care
about your interaction with them and it reduces the likelihood of a positive
reaction. Put down the report, turn away from the computer, and choose to only
engage one thing, your interaction with them. Now to show respect and to show
confidence feel free to stay seated, but face them directly. Look directly at their
eyes and sit up straight, all of which are quiet but important signs of strength.
After hearing their request and determining that you are going to say "No", don't
invite them to sit down with you, this isn't a conversation, just a brief, cordial
exchange. At any time during this interaction, while they're speaking to you, don't
interrupt them, don't assume you know what they will say.
You show respect by allowing them to complete their question, inquiry, or
comment. While they're speaking, with your eyes locked, nod just a small amount
to actually show them you're listening. Pay attention to your body so you can
avoid negative gestures. These might include looking at your watch, tightly
folding your arms, furrowing your brow, over tilting your head, or overly strong
use of your hands, such as holding up your hands to interrupt them or pointing at
them while you are speaking. Whether you intended to be negative or not, any of
these often create negative impressions. You can never underestimate the power
of how your body speaks. Sometimes your decision to say "No" might be a good
one, and your words might have been well-chosen, but you still have to make
sure your body is as positive as your message.
Remember the guidelines we just covered so that your statement of ‘No’ can be
received as positively as possible.
Tips to remember
You're about ready to start delivering a response of ‘no’ a lot more effectively.
But first, we would like to share few additional tips and ideas. The first one is
obvious, but I think it's worth restating. Your goal isn't to move away from being a
person who always says ‘yes’ to one who always says ‘no’. The goal is to find the
strong minority of times that you should more thoughtfully and strategically say
no, so that you can properly focus on your own work.
That leads me to this valuable reminder. How your colleagues view you is not
about one incident or one time you said no to a request. Their view is based on
your average or typical behaviour.
When you're generally a great colleague, most people won't have any trouble
accepting an occasional ‘no’ when you need to deliver it. Let me go even further.
If you know how to do it correctly, as we've discussed in this course, saying ‘no’
effectively can actually earn you respect. When done right, it says you understand
focus and the need for goal achievement, while of course, still finding time to
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help your teammates when it's really needed. You know, as much as we want you
to jump in and start trying a few more no's, we need to remind you of the
importance of the beginning of relationships. When the team gets a new
member, or maybe a new boss, you're smart to start for the first few weeks or
months with a higher willingness to say ‘yes’ than ‘no’.
First impressions matter, and you want to make a good one.
Further, the new person likely needs a helping hand up front while they're still
new. So always respect this phase of a new relationship by being more inclined to
One final tip that's quite useful once you've mastered all of the rest of the things
we've talked about. This one is about incorporating a quid pro quo into your
response. Technically, this can be used with a positive or a negative response, but
in either case, the point is clear. You're saying you'll help them in exchange for
something you need help with. You're creating a clever little win-win situation.
They need help with the report, you need help with the binders for the client. You
both win. Don't do this a lot. But once in a while, it's a useful way to get a little
needed help. Nothing too complex here, but you do need to remember these
Don't forget that saying no is normal, and generally considered respectable. Sure,
you want to be a little more helpful when people are new, but later you can also
squeeze in a few quid pro quos as well, to ensure you receive the help you need,
All right, let's get started. To wrap this course and get you moving, we’re going to
give you a little homework. Actually, it's just three little steps.
The first step is to target one type of work or one specific person, something that
for you represents a known problem area, an issue you can easily predict will
happen next week just like it did this week.
Next, think about what will happen if you assert a needed no when the inevitable
favour is asked. How will this person react? You need to think about the most
unhelpful and difficult response they might offer, not just the best-case scenario.
Now, think about the tips throughout this course and craft your specific
responses to their likely response. And no matter how it actually goes, be sure to
follow up with them later so you can maintain an open line of communication.
That's it, you're ready. It's time to start asserting yourself just a little more when
appropriate, by knowing how to effectively say no. Good luck.
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A template for saying no
How many times have you been asked to do something and your first thought
was, how in the heck am I supposed to do that?
Your boss asks you to shorten a deadline from six months to one month, or she
asks you to take on more and more responsibility, but doesn't offer anything in
return. These are difficult situations. And if you're a classic avoider or
accommodator, you might think, I got to be a team player, or I'll lose any chance
of promotion if I don't say yes. So below are presented eight ways to say no that
are easy on your relationships, and help you honour your time, and your
commitments and values. So let's run with the example of being asked to work
on a new project.
Borrowing from Chris Voss' Never Split The Difference, please note the following
eight responses to requests which are neither in line with your job description or
your team’s priorities.
• Here's how your first no sounds. How am I supposed to do that? This
question, if you ask it with curiosity, puts the burden of how back on the
asker. This is especially important if you don't have enough information to
say yes or no, or when you simply don't have the time.
• Number two is the helpful no, I love that you thought of me, and I'm
unable to participate. I'd be glad to help you find someone else.
• Number three is the appreciative no. I think your idea is fabulous, and I'm
not able to participate at this time.
• Number four is saying no with a possible future yes. Yeah, I'd love to
participate, but at a later date. Can you ask me again in January?
• Number five is no with a specific future yes. I'd love to help you with your
project, and I'm on deadline until Tuesday. Can we talk on Wednesday?
• Number six is no when you don't know. It sounds interesting, but I need to
sleep on that. Or I need to check with my boss or partner.
• And number seven is a no with values. If I take on another task right now, I
wouldn't be honouring my productivity commitment to my current project
• And number eight is simply a positive no. Yeah, I'd love to participate, and
I'm going to have to decline.
Now here's the final tip. The biggest tool in your kit is to learn to stop talking once
you've said no. You might be tempted to add little disclaimers and explanations,
but don't, because it will lead to a knee-jerk, inauthentic yes before you know it.
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