How to Say No

A woman sits at a white desk looking calmly at a laptop

Why is it so hard to say the word no? 

When you say no, you feel like you’re letting people down. You feel like you’re being a bad friend, employee, or family member. 

And for those of us with people pleasing tendencies, the thought of saying no can induce a great amount of stress and anxiety. The awkward feelings that come with saying no. The guilt and worry that your coworkers will think less of you. We end up saying yes just to avoid conflict. 

Reasons why we have trouble saying no…

  • We’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings.
  • We’re afraid of coming across as mean and selfish.
  • We’re afraid of appearing lazy (especially at work).
  • We feel guilty for prioritizing ourselves over others. 

But if you say yes to everything, you’ll end up feeling burnt out, frustrated, and resentful. You might think that saying yes will make you a better employee or friend, but the truth is, when you spread yourself too thin, you’re unable to give things the time and attention they deserve.

In fact, it’s by learning how to say no that you will become a better friend, partner, and employee. 

Signs that you need to start saying no: 

  • When you’re regularly being asked to take on extra assignments at work without being compensated. 
  • When you’ve become the go-to person in your family for favors.
  • When you can’t remember the last time you took a vacation or a day off. 
  • When you feel guilty for trying to set boundaries.

Saying no is a skill in and of itself. With practice and patience, you’ll learn how to push past the uncomfortable feelings and put your needs first. Below are different strategies and sample scripts you can use to help you say no with confidence and care. 

How to say no at work

If the thought of saying no to your boss is making your heart race, you’re not alone. 

The modern workplace prioritizes hustle above one’s health. You’re encouraged to work hard, be available 24/7, and wear as many different hats as you can—all at the expense of your well-being. And with the threat of downsizing and layoffs, it’s no wonder that so many employees are feeling pressured to take on everything that comes their way.

It may sound counterintuitive, but learning how to say no will actually make you a better and more productive employee.  Here’s how to do it.

What’s on your plate? 

It always helps to do an assessment of your workload. Make a list of your tasks, responsibilities, projects, etc. And don’t just take note of what your boss is asking you to do. If you work in a big team or office, chances are lots of different people are making requests and delegating work to you. 

Why is this exercise important? It might be hard to swallow, but sometimes we can belittle or dismiss our own contributions. Which allows us to say yes to excess work. By recording what you are doing, you can demonstrate to yourself, and to others, how much you are actually doing. 

Use sample scripts

Oftentimes, we avoid saying no because we’re not sure how to say it without offending our boss or coworker. 

So do yourself a favor and prepare some sample scripts that you can practice and use whenever you need. If you worry about coming across as too mean or unprofessional, a sample script will help you say no in a firm but polite way.

Here is how to structure your no:

Step 1: Express thanks

Step 2: Provide some context and say no  

Step 3: Cushion your no with a polite thanks

Example 1:

Thanks so much for thinking of me for this. But I’m currently working on X and won’t be able to give your project the time and attention it deserves. 

Thanks so much again and best of luck on your project! 

Example 2: 

If you’re interested in the project, but the timing isn’t great for you, then you can propose it this way:

Unfortunately, I’m currently working on X and won’t be able to do Y in that timeframe. Is there flexibility with the deadline? 

Promote a different colleague 

Another strategy you can use is to recommend the appropriate colleague for the task. 

If you're worried about dumping your burden onto someone else, then suggest someone whose career could benefit from taking on a task that’s above their level. Maybe it’s an intern looking to take on more operational responsibilities. Or an office manager who wants to try their hand at marketing. 

This way, you’re not overworking, and someone else gets a career boost. Win-win. 

How to say no in your personal life

In some ways, it’s much harder to say no to friends and family members than it is to your boss and coworkers. Your friends and loved ones have known you forever. They might have always seen you as the dependable one in the group, the one who always says yes. It can be hard to break those patterns.

But as the saying goes, you need to refill your own well before you can serve others. 

Use sample scripts. You can use the same sample scripts from above but with personalized tweaks. If someone asks you to help out with a family event or run an errand, add some context and say no. “Unfortunately, I have a busy week with x and y, and can’t get around to it.”

Or if you can’t attend a social event, say no and send your best wishes for the event. “This sounds so fun but unfortunately I have my hands full that weekend. Thanks for including me and hope you have a great time!” 

Take advantage of auto-responses. The auto-response isn’t just for work emails. During busy times, set up an auto-response in your personal account and don’t forget to activate do not disturb on your phone. 

It might feel hard and uncomfortable at first, but the more your practice saying no, the easier it will get. Your personal and professional life will deeply benefit from it.

Written by JiJi Lee

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