Mastering the Art of Saying “No” Without Upsetting Others

Are you piled high with workplace time demands, media deadlines or client expectations? Are you trying to cram too many activities into too little time? Has COVID-19 added more pressure to your workday time, whether in the office or working from home? You probably face this type of situation every day. But when you are overloaded, you can learn how to say “No” to people without upsetting them.

Time pressure has been growing on professional workers in recent years, especially in large organizations. Many employers have created more cross-functional collaboration with less clarity on reporting lines and responsibilities, leading to more complexity in the workplace. Employees are receiving many types of requests to cooperate with others at various levels, formal and informal, large and small. These come from direct bosses and teammates but also from internal stakeholders coming from different directions. Plus demands on time from external stakeholders. It is becoming a ‘stakeholder capitalism’ world.

These requests keep coming through many channels – in meetings, through Zoom conferences, by phone, email, and instant messaging. We are being judged on how well we deal with these ever-growing demands on our time.

Quite a few years ago as a PR consultant in my 20s, I had to battle deadlines for clients and media, as well as quotas of chargeable time to meet each month for client work. It was a draining and stressful experience for someone with perfectionist tendencies like me. In hindsight, I wish I knew then what I know now – how to tactfully and effectively say “no” to extra work.

One important thing to remember is to make yourself likable to others first. This makes it easier to say “no” while staying in good regard with them. You can read more about getting people to like you in my article, “Getting people to like you makes your communication more effective.”

Be absolutely clear to yourself about what you want

A great fundamental point to start on is to be clear to yourself what you actually do want (Peck, 2019). Decide your biggest priority right now, or in other words, what do you want most? Don’t just be there to please your boss, because you can’t always drop everything to please them, especially if you have more important urgencies to deal with than taking time to respond to a fairly mundane request from your to say no to people

Especially if you are new on the job, or if you are meeting with the boss in your performance review, ask your boss: “I want to do a great job here and support you and the mission of the company. What’s the most important thing I could seek to accomplish in the coming year?” Align with them on the main goal, and your ability to focus will become far easier down the track. Therefore, when your boss asks you to work on a project that seems unrelated, you can say: “I’ve got three projects on my plate, and we’re focused on achieving [our main priority]. This new project will make it harder to achieve our most important goal – unless I’m missing something.”

You don’t have to agree to so many requests

You can’t agree to all requests – trying to please everyone – and expect to do it all well (Tulgan, 2020):

When you take on too many or the wrong things, you waste time, energy, and money and distract yourself from what’s really important. Still, no one wants to anger or disappoint colleagues or other contacts—or, worse, turn down key career and life opportunities.

These observations help you understand why declining a request can bring you benefits (Mayo Clinic, 2019):

  • Saying no isn’t necessarily selfish. When you don’t agree to a new commitment, you’re honoring your existing obligations and ensuring you’ll be able to devote high-quality time to them.
  • Saying no can allow you to try other new things. Just because you’ve always helped plan some activities within the company doesn’t mean you have to do it forever. Saying no gives you time to pursue other angles to increase your skills.
  • Always saying yes isn’t healthy. When you’re over-committed and under too much stress, you’re more likely to feel run-down and possibly get sick.
  • Saying yes can cut others out of new experiences. On the other hand, when you say no, you open the door for others to step up. Or you can delegate someone to take over the task. They may not do things the way you would, but that’s OK. They’ll find their own way.
    The heartening news is that you can find relief from these stresses by saying no in a logical way.
  • Suggest someone else

    One quick way to deal with requests you want to decline is to sidestep them – suggest someone else to take on the commitment. You could say something like, “I’m already fully committed with this project I’m currently working on, unfortunately. Have you thought of asking Bill or Jane? Either of them would be great, and I’m happy to raise this with them, if it helps.”

Assess each significant request with care

Faced with an important personal financial investment, most of us do some due diligence – seeking out more information so we can make a sound judgment. When you say yes or no to a work request, you’re deciding where to invest your personal resources, so give the consideration of significant work commitments the same careful attention.

Give yourself some time if you don’t like to refuse a request

Do you dread the thought of saying no to someone to their face? If you are put on the spot and asked to do something you can’t fulfill properly, but you would hate to turn them down, ask the other person to text or email their request so you can get back to them. This gives you the double benefit of clarifying the nature of the commitment more clearly than in an initial face-to-face discussion, as well allowing you to better estimate the amount of time and capability you would be able to devote to the activity. Then turning down their request in writing will avoid the face-to-face pressure. You can check in with yourself about what you really want, and find the right words (or the courage) with which to decline them, says Vanessa Van Edwards, founder of the human behavior research lab, Science of People, quoted in a 2019 Guardian article by Chloe Brotheridge.

Define the request

If you feel you need to know more about the commitment you are being asked, then you can meet with the other person to discuss the detail. Start by insisting on a well-defined request (Tulgan, 2020). Sometimes the request is too casual, so you misunderstand – It sounds like more or less than it really is, or it sends you off in the wrong direction. That’s why you ought to help yourself and the person asking by getting critical details about the request. You can develop a reputation for being highly responsive if you engage in this way. It doesn’t mean you’re agreeing to the request. It simply signals that you’re taking the other person’s needs seriously, whether you can help or not.

You should ask questions and take notes to clarify what a commitment to the request would involve, including the project or activity’s costs and benefits. This is similar to the notes that lawyers, accountants and consultants write during a briefing meeting. These reference documents summarize each client’s need. Basically, you are helping the other person to fine-tune their request in a businesslike way.

Write a briefing note to summarize each request

Your briefing note should cover the following matters:

  1. The date of the request. This could be important down the track.
  2. Who is requesting your service – the person, their nominated person, a department, etc.
  3. Is this a formal or informal request? Either way, you should confirm the request and your decision in writing, even if just in an email to ensure there are no misunderstandings about your response.
  4. The deliverable/s being requested. Be specific and comprehensive.
  5. Deadline for completion, and for any progress stages.
  6. Resources of time, cost and/or materials required.
  7. Who has overall responsibility for the project/activity/commitment? They need to be aware of the approach to you, and need to approve it in writing if it is a formal approach.
  8. The possible benefits of your commitment – to them, others, and you.
  9. The obvious and hidden costs – and who is going to pay for these.

All this detail may seem to be more than necessary, but the bigger or more complicated the requested action, the more information you should gather. Sometimes honoring the request is out of the question. A request may seem so small that responding in writing may appear to be unnecessary – or it would take longer to draft notes than simply completing the requested action. Writing detailed notes may be overkill, but you will have a valuable tangible record of the request that you can remember to include in your monthly activity reports internally and externally.

What’s more – if you are a PR consultant, for instance, this request would comprise chargeable time, and so your documentation of the facts would enable you to charge for it. If a favor is being asked, you can note it for future reference when there may be flexibility to perhaps add the charge to your monthly invoice as part of a larger item without spelling this out specifically. A client could be embarrassed if their senior manager, who needs to give final approval to invoices, queries the line item in your invoice relating to the favor you may have done for your contact person. This is another reason not to include the item directly in your client invoices.

Most requests deserve at least some further investigation before you make a decision. You’ll find that seemingly small requests can become big ones, or what sounds impractical at first becomes much easier than you assumed. You might realize that a seemingly silly request is actually smart, or vice versa. That’s why taking notes should become a compulsory response to everything except the most minor and urgent requests.

Be sure to include your draft list of anticipated activity in the briefing note you write in response to the request being made. Sharing your draft briefing note with the other person will confirm that your understanding is mutual. The other person will respect your professionalism for making this record of what they need—and it will mean they respect your decision much more readily whether you decline the request or agree to it.

Think through how and when you respond

A thoughtful and timely refusal can be a big plus, but a badly timed and delivered negative response can cause problems for you and the person or people who have made the request. A poorly handled rejection can take place:

  • when you haven’t properly assessed the request,
  • when you let your decisions be influenced by your own biases, including dislike of the person who asked, or because they don’t seem important enough,
  • when you decline because you have agreed to do too many other things and don’t have any capacity left.

Timing is often important in your response. Don’t answer quickly. You shouldn’t give a hurried refusal, or you’ll risk seeming uncaring. But don’t wait too long, either. If your “no” really means “Not now, but soon,” let the person know that. If the answer is “No, but I know somebody who can” or “No, but I can provide you with aid that will help somebody else do it,” say that as soon as possible.

Top tips on how to say “No” to people

Understanding the psychology of the problem is the key to reducing the risk of offending others (Grenny, 2019). Others are likely to be disappointed by your response. Aim to ensure disappointment doesn’t escalate to insult. Separate your answer to the topic at hand from your sentiments about the people involved – you are turning down a request, not the person or people making it.

Here are some broad options for refusing a (Scott, 2020a, Collingwood, 2020):

  1. Keep your response simple. You can say “I’m sorry – I can’t do this right now.” It can be useful to delay your response until you have a chance to fully look at how agreeing to this new commitment may affect your life. Use a sympathetic, but firm tone. If pressured as to why, reply that it doesn’t fit into your schedule, and change the subject. Most reasonable people will accept this as an answer, so if someone keeps pressuring you, they’re being rude. It’s OK to just repeat, “I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t fit with my schedule – I have too much on my plate already,” and change the subject, or even walk away if you have to.
  1. Give yourself some time. If you’re uncomfortable in being so firm or are dealing with pushy people, it’s OK to say, “Let me think about it and get back to you.” This gives you a chance to review your schedule, as well as your feelings about making another commitment. Do a cost-benefit analysis in terms of your welfare, sleep on it, and then get back to them with your decision. Thinking it through in your own time will give you more confidence to decline if you wish to. Most importantly, this tactic helps you avoid letting yourself be pressured into over-scheduling your life and taking on too much stress (Scott, 2020c).
  1. Compromise by agreeing to something else less demanding. If you would really like to do what they’re requesting, but don’t have the time (or are having trouble accepting that you don’t), it’s fine to say, “I can’t do this, but I can…” and mention a lesser commitment you can make. This way you’ll still be partially involved, but it will be on your own terms. Remember to avoid compromising if you really want or need to turn down the request.

When actually saying “No”

When responding with a refusal, here are some guiding suggestions (Scott, 2020a):

  • Be firm—not defensive or overly apologetic—and polite. This gives the signal that you are sympathetic, but will not easily change your mind if pressured.
  • Be clear. If you decide to tell the person you’ll get back to them, be matter-of-fact and don’t give them the impression you are likely to agree. If you lead people to believe you’ll likely say “yes” later, they’ll be more disappointed with a later “no.”
  • No excuses necessary. If asked for an explanation, remember that you really don’t owe anyone an explanation. “It doesn’t fit with my schedule,” is perfectly acceptable.
  • Be true to yourself. Be clear and honest with yourself about what you truly want from this situation. Use the opportunity to get to know yourself better and examine what you really want from life.

Remember: you only have a limited number of hours in every day. This means that whatever you choose to commit to limits your ability to do other things. So even if you somehow can fit a new commitment into your schedule, and if it’s not more important than what you would have to give up to do it (including time for relaxation and self-care (Scott, 2020b), you really don’t have the time to do it.

How to decline work requests from four kinds of people

You need to know how best to tactfully refuse the request from four kinds of people who may want you to take on extra work (McCord, 2020):

  1. Your boss. Your supervisor/manager asks if you’re able to take on a little more work, but – you can’t. Try saying, “Thank you for thinking of me for this, but I was planning to spend this week working on [name/s of other projects] you want done.” This approach works because (1.) It’s flattering your boss thought of you (after all, you want to be top of mind when new, exciting projects come along!), and (2.) If your boss knows this new task is more important, it invites them to say, “Let’s push those other projects to the backburner.” Just make sure you’re on the same page as far as priorities go.
  2. Your colleague. Try something like this: “I appreciate you asking me, [name]. That sounds like an exciting/interesting initiative. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about this [topic], and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much help. I’m also overloaded with tasks my boss has asked me to do.”
  3. Your employees. You want to encourage brainstorming and love it when your team members suggest new ideas. However, sometimes you already have a clear plan in mind, and what you’d really want is for them to implement it. So your message should be along the lines that while you appreciate employee input in general, this is a project where it’s really important everyone follow the plan exactly. Remember: You always should say “because…” in your response because people accept a response with a reason why compared with not giving a reason. Try: “Thanks for giving me that suggestion, [name]. For this particular project, we need to follow the directions exactly as they’re outlined because we need to meet the tight deadline. Our plan has been approved, and any changes might send us back to the drawing board. As always, please let me know if something is unclear or if you have any questions.”
  4. Your clients. You need to be tactful at the start by letting your client share their thoughts – fully. You may be tempted to cut them off as soon as they start into an idea that you know wouldn’t work or would be too costly. But if you stop them there, they will think you might not understand the idea. As they speak, listen for key concerns they are mentioning or key issues they think their new approach is solving. Then, when you respond with your plan, emphasize how you’re addressing the same issues (as opposed to how you’re shutting down their plan). It should go like this, “I hear your concern that you have doubts about the proposed new tagline. However, I worry that the one you suggested is very similar to the competition, and I know one of your main goals is to stand out. Can I walk you through how we came to this one and other contenders you may want to consider?”

If you are still considerably bothered or experience significant anxiety by turning down a request, you could think about taking on some assertiveness training. Through all this, you might keep in mind what billionaire US businessman Warren Buffet famously said: “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything” (Inc., 2020).

The most effective types of “Yes”

What are the best types of activities in which you can agree to making a commitment?” Tulgan (2020) believes:

Ideally, the best type of request for involvement is aligned with your organization’s mission, values, priorities, ground rules, and goals. It is something you can do well, fast, and with confidence. In other words, it involves one of your specialties – or an opportunity to build a new specialty. It allows you to make an investment of time, energy, and resources in something that is highly likely to succeed, and offers significant potential benefits.

You need to explain exactly why you’re saying yes: You can help strengthen the project’s outcomes, you want to collaborate, and you see the benefits. Then decide on and document your plan of action, especially for your deliverables.

Make sure you agree on the details, including what they need from you, what you will do together, how and when the work will be done, who has oversight, and when you’ll discuss the issue next. If this is a multi-step process, you might need to have several of those conversations as you go along.

Most people have too much to do and too little time. Agreeing to requests from bosses, teammates, and others can make you feel important but can lead to burnout.

To be consistently successful in your work is to get really good at declining requests in a way that makes people feel respected. You should only agree to a request when your reasoning is sound and you have a clear plan of action.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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