Updated April 21, 2023
The word ‘No’ is perhaps the most contentious in the English dictionary. We all feel compelled to use it at some point in life, but we universally hate to be on the receiving end of it, especially at work. The moment you use this word at work, you’re deemed a jerk, a slacker, a tantrum-thrower, or even a spoilsport. But then again, if this word is never used in your verbal dictionary, you would become a doormat allowing others to steamroll you at work.
In this post, we show you how to achieve the impossible: how to say ‘No’ at work without sounding like a jerk. With these potent tips, you will see that it is possible.
Begin with an almost Yes
Let us be clear: an “almost Yes” is not a ‘Yes’. Instead, it’s like a “Give me time to think about it,” helping you with more time to know about the requested commitment.
Nobody likes a person who refuses without reason. We’re not saying that you have to accept every request that comes your way. But we are saying that if you begin your response with a direct “No,” you will quickly develop the dubious reputation of being a jerk. Instead, throw in words like “sure,” “certainly,” “possible,” “I can,” etc., to disarm the other party.
- This looks possible.
- I’m sure there’s something I can do for you.
- I will certainly get back to you.
None of these phrases indicate a firm commitment. Yet, they will likely receive a better response than a direct refusal. The almost Yes empowers you to find out just how unreasonable that request is before you make a justifiable decision to decline it.
Wear your empathy
This is often a misunderstood sentiment, so we will spend a little time here.
Unlike sympathy, empathy empowers you to acknowledge the other person’s position and care enough to help. An attitude of empathy also empowers you to receive every request with clarity. You don’t doubt that the other person is out to make things difficult for you. Instead, you know the request is genuine and respond rationally to it.
For instance, consider that a new employee walks up to you—the chief receptionist—and asks if you can help track his missing id. You sense that he’s worried, and you know that this can be fixed by a cumbersome yet productive call to customer service/security.
- Without empathy, you focus on the large pile of work waiting for you. You give away the customer service number and go back to your work. While this response may seem reasonable, this may also come across as downright obnoxious. (The guy is new, so he deserves some assistance).
- With empathy, you take a short break to reassure the newbie that this is no big deal. You also call customer service and guide the newbie to the right operator. This should take you less than 5 minutes, but it can win you an admirer for life.
Here’s another example: Consider that an employee walks up to you—the accounting rep—and requests a detailed salary statement (by month) to plan his tax. And he does this when you’re swamped with year-end work.
- Without empathy, your focus lies on the large pile of work waiting for you/ You ask him to come later, inadvertently delaying his tax-saving plans.
- With empathy, you understand his need for tax planning. You are keen to help but share the high-priority tasks on your desk with him. The detailed statement he wants will take longer and should be relegated to later. But perhaps you can help him by quickly pulling out the relevant figures of his total pay, so he can make some progress while he waits for the detailed report. Chances are that he’ll respond positively to this.
Do you see the difference?
Again, it’s not as if you’re agreeable to whatever commitment comes your way. But with empathy,
- You take time to listen without resistance.
- Send out vibes of being a fair, approachable, and supportive person.
- You also invite the other person to respond in the same way.
Okay, so you’re full of work and find yet another request coming your way. You do feel empathetic to the other, but there’s absolutely no way you can take on more. Or so you think.
We often misinterpret external requests, thinking them to be more work for us. But this is not always true. You may come across a task or request specifically designed to make things easier for you—perhaps it can streamline a cumbersome process, help you get things done smoother and faster, or even reduce your workload.
With more companies focusing on the “less-is-more” paradigm (less effort for more productivity, less data for more impact information, etc.), it’s been known to happen. So dig deeper to find out exactly what the additional request entails for you before you turn that almost-Yes into an unattractive No.
Paraphrase the request
You’d be amazed at the amount of miscommunication corporate suffers from. (You say to-mah-toh, and the other says to-may-to, both referring to the tomato!) So always paraphrase your request so the other party understands what you understand.
It also helps to paraphrase your request as you break it down into doable tasks.
This helps with 2 things:
- You plan the request in your head, assuming you will do it. (That’s positive thinking for you!)
- The other person becomes aware of the effort involved in fulfilling the request.
Often, this is the point where the other understands the unreasonable effort involved and either simplifies his request or withdraws it all together. End result: you’ve achieved your objective without using that dreaded 2-syllable word. Nice!
Redirect to a third-person
Let us reassure you here that this is not about passing the buck. But it is about using the right attitude to redirect a request to the right person.
We often get annoyed with misdirected requests. These form the bane of corporate existence, as saying ‘No’ here may portray you as an insensitive slacker. But what if you were to redirect a request with the intention of getting things done?
For instance, consider this unusual situation: You’ve been the unanimous rep for the accounting department, and all employee requests are directed your way. But since you’re swamped with year-end work, you’re considering redirecting some of it to your colleague, Macy.
- You let know Macy know upfront so she’s comfortable sharing the work.
- When you receive a new request, you take a minute to review it before shooting a helpful note to Macy on the nature of the request. (Example: print detailed salary statement for employee ABC from worksheet XYZ).
- You also update the original initiator on this and further request him to pass the word on new ownership: Macy is the new point of contact for accounting requests. However, you remain available to help.
This is a way better way than an abrupt “No. Ask Macy. I don’t do this anymore.”
Defer the request
This is a quick one: Let’s say that you find a genuine request coming your way and are convinced that you are indeed the right person to work on it. But you simply have no time in the present. Consider deferring the request rather than responding with an outright No.
The ability to take responsibility is a big asset at work. So if you sense the importance of a request while noting that it is not necessarily urgent, talk to the requester about “delaying” the request. This can win you surprising brownie points IF the other senses your genuine commitment to take on the job at a later time.
Soften your No with kindness
Yes, we finally reach that direct ‘No’ that you simply have to use in order to stay empathetic.
A direct ‘No’ is the only response for all those (NOT) “yet again” times when you become the fall guy for another’s goof-up. The trick lies in differentiating these from the almost-yes situations.
- This is when that co-worker asks for your help on the monthly presentation for the fourth time in a row.
- Or your teammate forgets to inform the client about the rate hike, yet again. And requests your superior interpersonal skills to smooth things out yet again.
- Or when your boss assigns that thankless job that nobody else wants, promising that it will be different next month, yet again.
You get the drift.
Here, it helps to soften your response with kindness, even as you take pains to point out how your response will strengthen another. Do make an effort to let the other know that you’re refusing not because you’re an insensitive jerk but because:
- You have more pressing priorities at work. (If possible, clarify these explicitly so there is no room for doubt.)
- You’re committed to another’s learning. You’ve more than done your bit, and it’s time for the other to catch up while you move on.
This is also the type of response to use when you do not want to shun a future opportunity. For instance, let’s say a co-worker invites you to a weekend brunch, and while you’re keen to go, you’ve got pending commitments to take care of. You would also like to leave room for future invitations. Again, pepper your ‘No’ with kindness while explicitly clarifying your reason for refusal. This will ensure that your relationship stays cordial while giving you the leeway to get out of unexpected commitments.
Use a firm No to define boundaries
All right, we took great pains in tips (1) through (7) to ensure that your response is anything but that of a jerk. But there will be situations where you have to put your foot down as you grant a polite but aggressively firm ‘NO’. This is essential when you want to define strong boundaries.
- A client or co-worker invites you to socialize outside work, which is against company policy.
- A teammate constantly expects you to pick up his portion of work when he slacks.
- You receive any sort of social/personal/cultural/financial/professional requests that are unwelcome and outside your comfort zone.
- You are dealing with someone with a reputation for being insensitive or obnoxious.
There is no softening in this response. You want the person to get the message, even if it seems harsh. Understand here that you are not a jerk, and have the right to refuse without guilt or apology. Depending on the situation, you may feel inclined to share the reason for your refusal additionally.
Consider WHO’s asking
As you can see, this post teaches you to subtly say ‘No’, while saying ‘Yes’. However, there will be times when your answer should be nothing but a straightforward ‘Oh Yes’. To check if this is one of those times, find out who’s making that crazy-unreasonable-time-consuming-not-your-job request.
If there is a request coming your way from the top guy at work (and by this, we mean that person who signs your pay-cheque, your boss’ pay-cheque, and his boss’ pay-cheque), you’re better off getting on top of it right now, no questions asked.
But, there’s good news. These are also the kind of requests that will be backed by your boss and perhaps even his boss. (Remember those pay cheques!) So don’t feel shy to enlist their share of help to complete these ridiculously high-priority tasks. This may include re-prioritizing pending tasks with your boss, enlisting his or her help to get information quickly, or even taking on an “assistant” to speed things up.
The last word…
As any seasoned professional will tell you, corporate relationships thrive when you can effectively communicate a harmonious ‘No’ even when you’re saying ‘Yes,’ or vice versa. Don’t just surrender your instinct to get out of a task. When used right, your ‘No’ can be used to expand your mentorship with a junior, expand your association with a teammate, or strengthen your partnership with a client. Make an effort to use these tips to build thriving and mutually enriching partnerships (not mere associations).