How to Get Better at Saying "No" at Work


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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Saying no to anyone can be difficult, but saying no to someone at work can prove even more of a challenge.

Article 4 Minutes
How to Get Better at Saying "No" at Work

Often, we feel obligated to say yes to requests from colleagues or superiors for fear of being labeled “lazy” or “not a team player”. For many, saying no can lead to feelings of guilt.

However, agreeing to take on additional responsibilities or tasks can be overwhelming, which isn’t healthy either. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to learn how to be better at saying no at work without offending someone or gaining a reputation of being “hard to work with”.

Why it’s essential to set boundaries and learn to say no

Most of us find saying no hard at times. Whether you get invited to a dinner party you don’t want to attend or your boss asks you to pitch in on a last-minute project - refusal can feel offensive (even if it isn’t).

Learning to say no nicely is crucial if you want to ensure you don’t become overwhelmed at work or take on more than you can handle. Knowing how to do this is also key to maintaining good mental health and work quality.

It’s important to note that women find it more difficult to say no than men do. According to clinical psychologist and academic coach Mary McKinney, this is because there is more societal pressure on women to be likeable. For men, assertiveness is considered a positive trait while women are often seen as more agreeable if they are compliant.

Learning to set clear boundaries for yourself by refusing requests that you don’t want to agree to is key to ensuring you don’t feel stressed or burnt out in the workplace. So, how can you become better at saying no?

Assess what is being asked of you

Before answering with a hard no or agreeing to take on new work in a fluster, take some time to assess the request and how it’s going to impact you. Think about how engaging or interesting the request is, and whether it will bring with it any opportunities that could benefit you in the future.

Whether it’s a client, colleague, or your boss making the request, be sure to ask questions like:

  • Is it a short or long-term project?
  • What is the scope of work involved?
  • What will the impact be for the person you are saying no to?
  • Can tasks and responsibilities be shuffled to make time for the additional request?

Be clear about your priorities

According to one survey, a whopping 75% of employees have experienced burnout, which is defined as a state of emotional and physical exhaustion and can occur as a result of sustained periods of stress at work.

Factors that contribute to burnout include lack of control, unclear job expectations and dysfunctional workplace dynamics - all of which can lead to negative feelings about one’s job. It’s more likely to occur when people take on more than they initially planned and find themselves stretched to complete additional tasks.

Understanding your own priorities and practicing good time management is the second step when it comes to learning to say no. Communicating your priorities to your colleagues and managers ensures that everyone is on the same page, while also providing a valid reason why you are saying no.

Be straightforward and honest

Honesty is the best policy when it comes to saying no. If you don’t have the desire or capacity to take on extra work, provide a clear rationale as to why. Justifying your response with half-hearted reasons can come across as disingenuous and untrustworthy.

Giving a direct and honest reason why you’re unable to take on more responsibility at the moment is as easy as saying something like: “I have a lot on my plate at the moment, I’m unable to take on any extra work.”

Offer an alternative solution

An effective way of ensuring you maintain a good relationship with the person who asked for your help is to be empathetic and offer an alternative solution.

It’s as simple as asking if there’s anything small you can do to help out in the time that you have available. This could include helping to brainstorm ideas, providing feedback on drafts or trying to find someone else with the expertise to take on the extra work.

If you’re not able to do this, just ensure you’re saying no politely but firmly. You don’t want to give them the idea that you might change your mind which can open you up to guilt-tripping.

Practice saying no

It might sound silly, but another way to get better at saying no is to practice out loud. You can do this by yourself or with someone you trust.

Remember, you should aim to speak in a neutral tone. You don’t want to come across as mean or make the other person feel guilty. In the same way, you don’t want to appear meek and complacent.

Be clear, concise and friendly in your response and you’ll realise there’s no need to feel guilty when saying no.

Learning to refuse requests politely and respectfully is key to maintaining good relationships with your colleagues and coworkers while ensuring you don’t take on more than you can handle.

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