Saying no in any relationship is about setting boundaries and professional ones are no different. Wanting to please everyone or worrying that it will tarnish your reputation is not a reason to take on additional tasks or projects that you cannot handle.

It’s not really about the ‘no’ and more about prioritizing what is important. You simply can’t get it all done in a day – you’re the gatekeeper in prioritizing what’s most important and aligning your time and energy throughout the day to complete the most critical tasks. Once you know what your priorities and goals are professionally (and personally), saying no to anything that does not fit that path becomes easier. Instead of feeling fearful about saying no, you can feel empowered.

The Challenge of Saying No

If you are sensitive to the needs of others or are a “people pleaser” you may feel that it is difficult to set boundaries. The most common fear is that people won’t like you. Or that you are ‘too good’ for the work being assigned or that you are being negative and not a team player. Sure, if you say no all the time you will have a reputation for not helping out, but the goal isn’t to say no all the time, to every request. Here’s what saying No is about – declining certain requests to help YOU be most productive and effective in your role. It’s a learned skill that can take time to develop, and it’s critical if you want to advance and thrive in the workplace.

Ways to Say No

Saying no does not have to be a negative experience. Here are some ways to say no firmly and gracefully. 

Be Clear and Concise. You don’t owe a four-page explanation of why you cannot do something. Be honest, clear, and concise in declining an opportunity. Some phrases you can utilize and still maintain relationships and respect are:

  • I am booked right now and do not have the time.
  • I do not have the bandwidth to help with this.
  • I’m working on this project deadline – I can’t commit 
  • I have a prior commitment on that day that I cannot miss.

If you want to accept an offer but cannot at the current time, suggest a future opportunity such as, “I am not able to join the meeting this time, but please email me the outcome and we can regroup.”

Find Other Resources. Often, you are asked to attend meetings or work on projects that are not aligned with the scope of your role, or is actually better aligned with someone else’s role. Ask questions to find out if you’re essential for the meeting or project. You might be able to mention someone else who can help out or direct to additional resources that are beneficial.

Don’t Waiver.  If the request is repeated, it is okay to continue to say no. You can use the “broken record” technique that simply involves saying no in other words – but the underlying answer is still no. 

For example, your first reply could be, “No, I really can’t join that meeting – I have to complete another project today.” 

If you get asked again, your second reply could be, “I would like to help but I’m not able to – feel free to send me meeting notes and I can see if there are any relevant action items for me to address.” 

Striking a balance in accepting new projects or tasks is key because if you take on too much, the quality of your work will decrease and it can lead to burnout

It takes practice, but you can honor yourself to prioritize what makes you fulfilled.