Four steps to help you master the art of saying no

Last updated on 4 September 2023

Effective listening and clear communication are essential when saying no to others. [Source: Shutterstock]

When someone asks you for a favour at work, what’s your go-to response? Is it always some variation of ‘yes’ or do you have the confidence to say ‘no’ when it’s too much? If it’s the latter – superb – but don’t fret if you haven’t mastered the art of saying no. Many of us haven’t.

Poor communication is one of the biggest negative influences on work productivity. Research from The Economist Intelligence Unit found that ‘added stress’ was the most significant consequence of poor work communication and that’s closely related to our ability to say yes or no to others. 

Saying yes feels like the easy route at first. Employees and low-to-mid-level managers are especially likely to say yes, hoping to appease higher-ups and showcase their ability to do anything. Yet it can be detrimental when a task is unachievable or impacts other pressing work. 

Mastering the way you say no truly makes all the difference at work. It’s not a decisive response; it should actually open doors to new opportunities or better outcomes. But if that’s something you’re struggling with, this is what you can do to become the master of no.

Establish your own boundaries

Setting and maintaining personal boundaries at work is hard, purely because it means you have to say no. Framing the positives and negatives can give you a better understanding of just how beneficial boundaries are.

Consider what happens when a senior manager asks you to stay behind to finish off an important task. What are you sacrificing if you work late, and who are you impacting if you work overtime? 

Saying yes could strain family relationships with no long-term benefit for work. Saying no could lead to conversations about existing workloads and the need for more notice of pressing deadlines. 

Similarly, your boundaries must place a priority on your own tasks. If you’re accepting new jobs that jeopardise your ability to complete existing ones, there’s no benefit in saying yes. Simply establishing your own boundaries can make it easier to say no as you prioritise your own personal well-being when work can clearly come second. 

Learn from others

The way you say no matters, and you can see this by watching how colleagues use it. For example, short and sharp responses can be hurtful with no context while over-explanations often leave people feeling confused and unsure. So take your time to watch and learn in the office.

  • Learn and understand verbal intricacies which result in good, or bad, outcomes
  • Consider how body language impacts the delivery of a yes or no response
  • See how others react to being told no so you can learn about the best way to interact with them
  • Recognise when certain staff are also prone to handballing tasks to others; in this case, saying no is likely more widely expected

Listen and communicate

Saying no to others is one small part of the process; you’re not a master if you say no and walk away from an interaction. Framing, delivery and context are essential as you have to listen and communicate effectively.

The first step is to listen, otherwise you can’t provide any genuine help. You have to understand what the problem is, why the other person has come to you, and how they expect you to help. The additional context allows you to respond in better ways, such as:

  • No, I don’t think I’m the best person for the job as I’m not the most experienced, but I can point you in the right direction.
  • Thank you for thinking of me. Right now I’m just too busy to lend a hand elsewhere. We do have some resources that can help you, though, etc.
  • That’s a great idea for a future project when we can allocate more resources to it. Why don’t you send me an email with more information and we can go from there. 

Arguably the most important part of saying no is your ability to offer help. There will always be circumstances where a no is simple and straightforward, but more often than not, it’s a bit uncomfortable.

Communicating your needs while understanding the needs of others will always help to smooth over the process, taking away some of the stigma around saying no. And if it feels easy and acceptable to say no, then you’ve mastered the art.

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