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.”
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 boss.how 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 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 (Innerbody Research, 2022):
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Your briefing note should cover the following matters:
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.
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:
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.
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.
When responding with a refusal, here are some guiding suggestions (Scott, 2020a):
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.
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):
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).
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.
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