When and How to Say No Image

Between work obligations and commitments to family and friends, our energies can be split in many different directions. This leaves us with very little time for ourselves, but it also means we’re decreasingly present in our work and relationships.

Yet, saying “no” when we’re asked to take on an assignment or a favor doesn’t always feel like an option.

Many of us have been hardwired to believe that it’s a sign of weakness or even laziness—that the more we take on, the more complete our lives will be.

But that’s not always true. Sometimes saying “no” is the best thing you can do for yourself and those around you.

Saying No Out of Fear vs. Courage

First, let’s make it clear that saying “yes” is not always a bad thing. In fact, it can change your life dramatically and help you to realize your dreams.

Shonda Rhimes even wrote a book about the three letter word—The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person—after realizing that her introverted ways had led her to say no to any opportunities that scared her.

This is a great example and perfect opportunity to acknowledge the difference between saying “no” out of fear and saying “no” out of courage.

If your friend invites you to travel the world with her but you decline because new environments make you uncomfortable, that’s saying no out of fear.

But if your boss asks if you can take on an important project when your plate is already full, saying no takes courage.

Let’s look at a few more examples to find out why.

When to Say No at Work

If you have trouble saying no at work, you’re not alone. It’s our human instinct to seek acceptance from a group, and that’s how many of us start down the treacherous path of people-pleasing.

But taking on too many projects at once just for approval can ultimately lead to a weaker job performance, as well as trouble in other areas of your life.

The following are just a few cases where it’s absolutely okay (and right) to say NO to a request:

1. It prevents you from taking care of your main responsibilities.

You should definitely try to be a team player when you can. But if your plate is looking particularly full, you need to prioritize your workload.

In times like this, you can and should say no to a request that takes time away from the duties you’re actually paid to carry out, especially when the task can easily be completed by someone else.

After all, saying no is really saying “yes” to something else—you’re choosing which projects you need to prioritize and give your full attention to.

2. It doesn’t serve your short-term or long-term goals.

If your boss asks you to take on an important project or role that 1) doesn’t fit with your short-term or long-term goals or 2) really doesn’t interest you, it’s okay to pass.

Open communication is key, because if you say yes to extra work that you really don’t care about, your boss might continue to assign you similar tasks in the future.

3. You know you can’t deliver results.

This one should be a no-brainer, but it’s still so hard. You don’t want to disappoint your boss, and you don’t want your colleagues to view you as incapable.

But if you know you just don’t have the time (or the knowledge or skills) to get something done, saying yes only sets you up for failure—and that’s definitely going to feel more awkward than saying no from the start.

How to Say No to Your Boss or Colleagues

Even if it feels uncomfortable, there is a polite way to say no, even to your boss and colleagues. Below are a few strategies you can use to gracefully decline a request.

1. Cushion your rejection with words of encouragement.

This can help both of you to feel less awkward (or guilty) about your response.

Example: That sounds like a great opportunity and I’m happy you considered me, but I just can’t take on any new tasks right now.

2. Explain your reasons.

In some cases you might not even need to justify your answer—but it might make you feel better about your decision, and it will show the person asking that you’re not just brushing them off.

Example: I can’t fill in for you this afternoon. I have an important deadline to meet regarding budget planning.

3. Leave the door open for future possibilities.

This one is totally up to you. If the answer you really want to give is “not now” more than an absolute “no,” then make that clear. 

Example: I’d love to help with your event, but my schedule is just too packed this year. I’d love it if you’d keep me in mind for next year!

How to Say No to Friends and Family

Sometimes, saying no to friends or family takes even more courage than at work.

Most of us would do anything for family, but sometimes we just don’t have the means, and sometimes their needs just can’t be met.

Money, for example, is a topic that has gotten many families into trouble. 

Consider this case:

A cousin comes to you asking for a loan of $5,000 to help them buy a house, but you’re in a financially tight situation yourself and you know your cousin has terrible credit. You’ll have to basically starve to pay your bills if you manage to get the money together at all.

What can you do?

In a situation like this—painful as it is—it’s probably more responsible to say no. 

For one, you’ll actually save your relationship in the long run. Bad blood tends to develop when friends or family are unable to pay their debts.

Second, you shouldn’t feel responsible for your cousin’s situation. It’s unfortunate, yes, but it’s not your fault if he was financially irresponsible and ruined his credit in the past.

You could explain that you’re facing financial difficulty yourself right now and just couldn’t swing it. If he really loves you like family, he should understand.

In situations involving friends and family, it’s ultimately up to you to decide what you’re comfortable with. But always remember that you have the power to set your own boundaries.

Learning to Say No

While saying “yes” can open new doors and bring exciting opportunities, learning to say “no” is equally important.

Find the courage to take back control of your personal and professional life by better managing your commitments.

Have you ever had to say “no” in a difficult situation? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

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