Tips For Professionally Saying No At Work

When your career is important to you, the struggle to constantly thrive in the workplace is real. Part of the challenge is constantly trying to impress your superiors and your colleagues, even to the point where you're stretching yourself so thin that your work-life balance dwindles to nothing. But when you do spread yourself too thinly and take on more than you can handle, your productivity actually diminishes. So it's super important to learn how to say no when you need to, both for the good of your workplace and for your own wellbeing.


Saying no, which is an essential part of advocating for yourself in the workplace, can be daunting. The last thing our generation of people-pleasers wants to do is disappoint anyone at work! But there are a few things you can do to make the process easier, less scary, and more effective. Here's how to turn down a request at work and still exude confidence and competence.

Don't respond straight away

When a colleague or supervisor makes a request at work, it's easy to feel like you have to respond straight away. Especially if you're prone to people-pleasing, you might feel like you have to give an answer within seconds of being asked for your help. But remember that you don't have to respond straight away. Often, if you feel rushed into replying, you'll say yes when you really want to say no, so taking the time to give the right answer is one of the best ways to avoid signing up for things you don't want to do.


If you know that you're going to say no, but don't quite have the confidence to say it yet (or don't know how to say it), tell the person asking that you'd like some time to think about it, per Fingerprint for Success. Of course, in the interest of being professional and considerate, get back to them within a reasonable time. If it's something that requires a more immediate response, you can simply say that you'll check your schedule. That will give you at least a little time — even if it's only minutes — to work out exactly what to say.

Think carefully about the pros and cons of saying no

Not every request will allow you the time to think about your decision carefully. But for larger requests, such as your boss asking you to take on a significant project, you have the right to have a good think about it. One of the best ways to find the right answer is to weigh up the pros and cons of saying no.


Get clear on all you stand to gain from turning down the request, and all you stand to lose. Perhaps saying no will mean making less money. Maybe it will mean more time with your family. It could save you from a world of stress, or it could hold you back from furthering your career.

It can also help to make a list of your top priorities, so you know which pros and cons hold more weight for you. For example, if your ultimate priority is to be there for your child, having to miss their birthday party to work an extra shift may be a good reason to say no. On the other hand, if your priority is to make as much money as possible within a year, then perhaps earning less is a dealbreaker. Ultimately, before you say no, make sure it's the right decision for you.


Acknowledge why you're being asked

It can soften the blow of saying no by first thanking the person who asked you for the opportunity. If your boss asked you to take on extra work because you're the most competent person on the team, acknowledge and show gratitude for the recognition (via Masis Staffing Solutions).


However, note that the reason behind why you're being asked might not be so positive. It's possible that you have a history of saying yes to everything, and the only reason you're being asked now is because the other person feels that you won't say no. Maybe you're being taken advantage of, or discriminated against. That's why it's important to understand why you're being asked in the first place. Knowing the reason why will help you to respond appropriately and, if need be, continue with or adjust your behavior.

Your boss is asking you to take on more because they're impressed with your work ethic? Say thank you and keep up the great work, even if you have to decline their request. A colleague is asking you because you're the only person who says yes to tasks that no one else wants to do? It may be time to change that.


Be polite but stand your ground

When you've established why you're being asked and that you definitely want to say no, it's time to think about how to communicate that effectively. Always be polite and professional when turning someone down at work, which includes keeping a calm, even tone. Be as clear as possible, even though this can seem daunting. If you mean no, don't say "maybe" or "probably not." If the answer is no, the other person needs to know so they can make other arrangements.


While it's important to be polite — which often includes thanking the person for the opportunity anyway — remember to stand your ground. If the other person tries to challenge you and won't take no for an answer, stand strong and firmly (but calmly!) tell them that the answer is still no.

Avoid making unnecessary apologies

When declining a request at work, it often feels natural to apologize. In many situations, apologizing is appropriate and can help you to say no more confidently. However, don't feel that you absolutely have to apologize if the situation doesn't call for it. While it may be fitting to apologize to your boss for not being able to cover a shift, you don't need to apologize to a co-worker who's trying to take advantage of you.


Whether or not you apologize is ultimately up to you, but try not to let the situation make you feel guilty. In a culture where many people are overworked and under-appreciated, remind yourself that you're simply doing your best. Some things are out of your control, and it's not up to you to sacrifice your health or wellbeing in order to be a team player. If you feel you need to, say you're sorry and you wish you could have helped, and leave it at that. There's no need to grovel at anyone's feet.

Make your reasoning clear

It can really help your boss or colleague to understand you better if you explain the reason why you're saying no. There's no shame in admitting that you've simply got too much on your plate at the moment, or you're aiming for a healthier work-life balance. Asana explains that making your reasoning clear prevents misunderstandings and will reduce the chance of the person you're declining taking it personally. As you give your reason for saying no, you can also specify whether it's a no just for now or a long-term no. Maybe you'd love the opportunity in the future, but you just can't take it on right now. Or perhaps the request is just not the sort of thing you'll ever want to do. This information will further help the person asking to understand where you're coming from.


All that said, don't feel that you have to give details that you're not comfortable sharing. You can just say that you've got too many demands in your life right now, rather than delving into how your relationship is on thin ice or you're dealing with a chronic health issue.

If you can, offer an alternative

Suggesting an alternative solution might not always be possible. Again, you're only human. But if you can think of one, it may be helpful to offer another fix to the problem at hand. Maybe you can't work the extra shift that day, but you can stay longer at another shift you're already working. Not only will an alternative solution boost productivity in the workplace, but it will also help if you just can't help feeling guilty about saying no. Being able to make a useful suggestion is likely to make you feel less rotten about the whole situation, and should help you communicate your no more confidently.


Coming up with another resolution is also a good chance to practice your creativity and problem-solving skills. If nothing else, it's an opportunity to show your boss that you can come up with fresh ideas and effectively deal with bumps in the road.

Rehearse what you're going to say

Most importantly, practice saying no. When you've decided what you're going to say and how much detail you're going to give, rehearse having that conversation out loud. While it's helpful to practice it on your own, it can be even more effective to practice with someone you trust, like a friend or family member. Rehearsing tricky conversations will make you feel more confident when it's time to have them, and will reduce the chance that you'll say the wrong thing in the heat of the moment.


Keep in mind that the conversation might go in a different direction from your rehearsal. Plan for a few alternative responses from your boss or colleague, and work out in advance how you'll navigate them.

In the event that you do blank (it happens to the best of us!), remind yourself that you are only human, your wellbeing is important, and you're allowed to set boundaries. It's okay to say no, and when you're on the verge of burnout, it's actually the best thing for everyone.