Refusing: How to Say “No”by Seb
Some have a problem with saying “no.” You can recognise them easily: they work late every night, spend all their weekends helping friends and neighbours with DIY projects, and have permanent shadows beneath eyes and a face that ask‘how can I help you?’
Refusing is an important coping strategy for dealing with information overload. Learning how to say “no” to more tasks when we’re already over-stretched will help us to become more productive.
Why do We Say “Yes” When We Want to Say No?
There are many reasons why people say “yes” when they really want to say “no,” but we will focus on what seem to be the most common.
- We are too kind-hearted. Naturally we want to help other people. We like feeling needed, and our automatic response is to say “yes,” because then people will like us.
- We don’t want to seem rude. This is especially true when we’re at work and someone in a senior position asks us to do something. We often worry that someone will take our refusal personally and become angry or resentful. Furthermore, we want to keep our jobs.
- We don’t want to miss opportunities. We feel that saying “no” to something will close doors and burn bridges to a better future.
All of these beliefs are completely understandable, but we need to take a long, hard look at them, and then throw them away. Remember: you are refusing the task, not the person, so there’s no need for them to take it personally as long as you refuse politely.
Refusing to do something if you genuinely can’t do it won’t make someone think badly of you. In fact, they are more likely to respect you for being honest about what you are capable of. As for missed opportunities, by saying “no” to one opportunity, you are allowing yourself to pursue others. Think of it as a trade-off rather than a missed opportunity, and one where you choose the best outcome.
Even if you have a red cape and a giant “S” on your front, it’s not possible to do it all. You’ll find yourself working unreasonable hours, sacrificing your own time, and still not getting your tasks done well. If you become a doormat or a “yes” man, you’ll find that your boss will always come to you with a task rather than asking another member of your team since they know you will agree to do it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be the one lined up for the next promotion.
You must focus on your own priorities, professionally and personally. If you’re always saying “yes” to everything you’re asked to do, you’ll spend all your time and energy on other people’s priorities rather than your own.
How to Say “No” and Still Keep Your Job
The most common reason for refusing a task is that you have too many other commitments. This is perfectly reasonable. If your other commitments suffer because of this particular task, or if you don’t have the resources to complete the new task effectively, then that’s a great reason to say “no.” The following example is perfect if you control your own workload.
“I am so backed up with other priorities that I just can’t commit to this and deliver you success. I’m very likely to stumble or not complete this. I’d rather say ‘no’ now than say ‘I’m sorry’ later.” –Chris Brogan, CEO Human Business Works
Of course, if it’s your boss asking you to do something, this is a little different. You can still say you have too much on your plate, but be prepared to show them exactly what you are working on. Keep your to-do list updated so you can present it in such situations. It may be that your boss can resolve your workload issues by helping out with tasks, delegating them to someone else, or prioritising them for later. This way a “no” may well turn into a reluctant “yes.”
There are a couple of other ways to say “no” diplomatically:
- Delaying instead of refusing. Say that you’d be happy to take on the task, but you can’t right now because you’re in the middle of something else. Give a realistic time when you will be able to take it on. Be prepared to do it at that time unless the requester feels it is too far in the future and asks someone else in the meantime.
- Referring instead of refusing. Rather than giving a hard “no,” why not suggest someone that could take on the task instead. "I’m not the best person to help with this, why don’t you try Neil in marketing, I’m sure he worked on a similar project last year.” You may think someone else has more appropriate experience, qualifications, time, or contacts.
- Checking instead of refusing. Sometimes you may not be entirely sure whether to say “yes” or “no” right away and need a way to keep your options open. It’s fine to say “Let me check my current workload and get back to you” or “I think that might conflict with a current commitment, but let me check.”
Here are a couple more tips on saying no politely:
- Be appreciative. If someone is asking you to do something, take it as a compliment. It means they believe you can do it! Thank them for considering you for the task and then explain why you need to say “no.”
- Be assertive. If someone is pushing you, it’s okay to push back. They might respect you for it. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman suggests making a joke out of this by saying "I know you don't give up easily – but neither do I. I'm getting better at saying ‘no.’"
- Be reasonable. Once you start saying “no,” the practise can become addictive. Don’t forget that sometimes you will have to do things you don’t want to do.. It may be benefit you in the future, giving you currency to curry favours. You never know.
Everyone needs to say “no” at some point, and often it’s the way you say it that makes the difference. If you have a good reason for saying “no,” and you present it politely and firmly, your colleagues and friends will learn to respect your boundaries and understand that you’re only saying “no” because you need to.
How do you say “no?” Let us know in the comments!