How To Say No Respectfully At Work

A friend asks for a loan which is not likely to be paid back. A colleague asks you to chip in for a birthday gift of a co-worker you don’t even know well. Your neighbour wants you to dog sit for him second time this week. You child’s school wants you to be on the science project committee again this year. You boss wants you to supervise a project which you know will end up becoming your baby. Your cousins want to drop in and stay over for the weekend when you were planning to take some time off for yourself.

All these are unique situations where you may want to say yes to ensure your neighbours, colleagues, boss, school principle, cousins – all feel good and you come across as helpful at the same time. But would that be possible? In fact, there will be a few of the above that you don’t want to be a part of. But you don’t want to look bad either. All of us feel bad about saying no at some point. But not being able to say no, ever, is when you can get into quite a pickle.

Let’s look at a few reasons, among many others, why it is so hard to say no:

1. We want to be nice: The simplest reason is not wanting to sound rude or unhelpful. We all want to be friendly and lend a hand whenever we can.

2. Out of guilt: We feel bad saying no to a request since we feel obligated to do it. And we feel guilty if we don’t take up a request.

3. Fear of conflict: We fear that the boss may not like a ‘no’ and a conflict might ensue due to it. We want to have a good relationship with colleagues, neighbours and family.

4. Fear of rejecting: We fear that saying no is a sign of rejection. It’s a cultural thing but it’s not true. Done the right way, saying no can be done respectfully without rejecting someone.

5. “I simply can’t say no” situations: Sometimes we have notions of propriety that don’t allow us to refuse a request. Reasons that help us justify it are – He is my boss and just can’t say no to him. Or – We are cousins and how can I refuse to cousins.

For all the valid reasons that we have for not saying no, are there ways to say no and say it well? There are a few things that one can keep in mind to make it easier:

1. Say no: Just remember that it is ok to say no sometimes. Keep that among your options you can use at times you know something is just not doable.

2. Be brief: The more you explain, the more you will sound guilty. Give a valid reason why a request can’t be taken and be done with it. Longer responses can also open up discussions, say, with your boss, who may question your priorities and get you to shift them to accommodate the new request.

3. Be respectful: Say it nicely and aim your refusal at the request and not at the person. Use empathy where required. Show your understanding. But also express your apologetic inability to fulfil a request.

4. Say no personally: It is always a good idea to do it personally. Dropping a casual message or an email can only make things worse. (Unless they are cousins living faraway)

5. Consider the consequences: You are well within your rights to say no to a colleague who wants to cut the line to use the copier. But it’s a totally different thing to refuse a promotion without giving a good thought to how it would affect you in the long run.

So how does one really get around to saying no nicely and not affect relationships? Here are a few quick and easy ways which, with practice, can be added to your repertoire of responses in such situations:

1. Ask for time: The best way to go about it is to say – “Let me check my schedule and get back to you”. This doesn’t sound blunt and at the same time gives you the time to formulate your response well.

2. Offer alternatives: One of the best ways to wriggle out of an uncalled for demand is to offer an alternative. “I am tied up all day today. How about we do this first thing tomorrow morning?” Or “The people in the IT dept will be able to help you with your login problems. Let me speak to John for you”.

3. Start with a positive: A blunt no is never well received. So make use of empathy that I mentioned earlier. This helps you start with a positive and then add the reason because of which you can’t help after all – “I understand that this is urgent. However I am busy finishing the month end deadlines”. You can also combine this with an alternative time or a person who can actually help.

4. Explain in advance: If you know that the meeting you are stepping into is for a new project where you will be assigned new tasks. Or if you know your neighbours expect you to help out for a party they are throwing next weekend. These are situations where you may declare your plans in advance and how it will be hard for you to fit in any more work.

Steve Jobs once said, “Focus is about saying no”. It is not a bad thing to stand up for your rights and accept only work or requests which you can easily accommodate. And refuse the rest. Be confident about yourself and practice the art of saying no.

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