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How to get better at saying ‘no’ at work and why it matters 

When it comes to the ingredients for career success, people are often encouraged to think that they should say ‘yes’ to every opportunity or piece of work that comes their way.  

Always saying ‘yes’ may make those around you happy and meet their needs; however, it’s unlikely to meet your needs. Instead, you can find yourself agreeing to things you don’t want to do, being overworked and under-appreciated, and in time, feeling resentful. You will also likely not find the balance that works for you.  

An essential part of avoiding burnout and having the career you want is learning how and when to say ‘no’ successfully. A crucial part of this is being ready and willing to deliver your ‘no’ with courage, compassion and conviction. 

Know your ‘no’

Acclaimed author Paulo Coelho said: “When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself”.  

Knowing when you want to say ‘no’ establishes boundaries, clarifies what matters to you and helps you prioritise.  

For example, in the context of a negotiation, it helps outline what’s open to discussion and up for negotiation. When you know your counterparts ‘no’, you are better aware of where they are willing to compromise and, likewise, for them, your areas of optionality.    

Challenge your reasoning

We say ‘yes’ to things, often reluctantly because it’s easier than explaining why we don’t want to do something or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or have a difficult conversation.   

So, when you are wondering how to respond, start by asking, ‘why not?’. Investigating what a potential ‘yes’ involves helps you clarify your reasoning. It can help you determine the right thing to do for you, others involved, and the organisation (if it’s a business-based decision). With those perspectives in hand, you gain confidence that your ‘no’ isn’t a reaction you’ll regret later but a well-reasoned response. 

Communicate specifically

Be clear in your communication. Just saying ‘no’ and nothing else can be interpreted as rude or disinterested. Instead, express your statement positively and explicitly.   

I recently got a ‘no’ to a request I made. The response went like this: 

My general philosophy in life is to have a big YES inside you regarding your purpose and goals so that you know what you want to do which makes it easier to say NO to things that don’t fit with that.  So, I’m going to say no, not for any reason other than it would take time away from things that I prefer to dedicate my limited spare time to. 

This response was good for three reasons: 

  • The reason for the decline was unambiguous  
  • The tone was correct; there was no need to apologise 
  • It was fast – I got the ‘no’ within an hour of my making the request 

To communicate effectively, the content of the message matters, and so too how it is delivered. The message gets lost if you are too wordy, wishy-washy and confusing. You want to stand in your conviction and back yourself by delivering the message with resolve and compassion for other people’s needs.  

Value relationships

Be genuine in your response and make sure you are open to hearing the other person’s point of view. They have the right to express disappointment or discontent about the fact you have said ‘no’ to something they want. Listen to them and ensure they feel heard. 

Be fast with your ‘no’. If you delay and prevaricate, it can make the situation harder for the other person as they have less time to find an alternate course. 

Don’t ruminate

Lastly, don’t ruminate over the decision. Once you’ve said ‘no’, be comfortable with your decision and move on. 

Remember, a successful career is a long-term game, which means it’s crucial to back yourself and your needs and saying ‘no’ is a vital part of that. 

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the award-winning author of three books. Her latest book is ‘Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one’. 

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