By Monica Torres 

Telling your boss “no” is one of the most fraught conversations you can have as an employee navigating the choppy waters of office power dynamics.

You can read up on what to say, but how should you sound while doing it? Alison Green’s new Ask a Manager podcast wants to strengthen your vocal cords, so your tone can firmly yet professionally push back against your boss’ unreasonable demands.

Talk as if it would unreasonable for your boss to disagree

On her podcast, Green gives the example of a listener being piled on with work after she gives her month’s notice to her boss. Getting assigned major projects when you already have one foot out the door is indeed an unreasonable request from your employer. To make your boss see reason, talk calmly as if it would be unreasonable for your boss to disagree. Make your tone matter-of-fact, as if the conclusion is already foregone.

“The idea is to say it like, of course, the boss will see the reason in what you’re saying since any reasonable person would. You don’t want to sound overly deferential or like you’re asking for permission to not take on that new work, because you’re not really asking for permission to take this reasonable course of action,” Green says. “You’re just explaining how you’re going to proceed and acting as if of course that will be fine because it would be crazy if it weren’t.”

Your voice should not be emotionally charged, because that feeling can become infectious. Your boss will not be inclined to accommodate you when you are being accusatory. People rarely learn from a place of humiliation. When Green role plays the part of the employee, she never raises her voice angrily. She stays cool and collected. She recommends keeping it in the same tone you would have when asking IT to fix a broken printer.

Okay, so you keep your tone right, and your boss is still not seeing reason — what can you do?

Then your voice needs to firm up, while still maintaining the tone of collaboration and professionalism. You outline how that request is not doable based on the little time you have left at the company.

You can say a script like, “I definitely hear you that it’s important, I just don’t want you to count on more getting done than what I realistically be able to do because I want you to be able to plan.” You give your boss options of what you can accomplish while giving them the option to reprioritize. That way, you are being transparent about your line of thinking, so that your boss can see where you are coming from with your request. You show your full deck of cards, but you never fold them down in defeat.

“Some people in that situation would get frustrated and their tone would show that, or they’d be too meek and deferential and hesitant, which the boss might take advantage of,” Green advises. “You just want to be direct, matter of fact, and signal that of course what you’re saying is reasonable, because it is.”

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