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7 Ways to Say No at Work

If you’re like most people, you’re pretty stressed out. The American Psychological Association, which has tracked anxiety levels in this country for the past decade, says that stress levels rose this year, after years of gradual decline. The election was an obvious factor, but respondents of every political persuasion reported feeling more anxiety.
say no at work
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So why are we so stressed? Politics aside, these are uncertain times. Younger workers struggle to establish their careers after college, while shouldering an ever-increasing pile of student loan debt. Older workers worry about retirement when employer-sponsored pensions are largely a thing of the past. And workers of all ages feel the need to be ever more available to their employers, answering emails at night and on the weekend. In an age of increasing economic anxiety, is it even possible to say no at work?

In short: yes — it’s even essential. Without good boundaries, you can’t manage all this stress, which means that you can’t do your best work. You only have 24 hours in a day. If you never say no, you’re likely to spend a lot of your time chasing other people’s priorities and neglecting your own goals.

Here’s how to do it:

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1. Set good boundaries.

“Part of saying no is establishing boundaries at work and at home and then being clear about them,” writes Camille Preston at Fortune. “We teach people how to treat us, so we have to re-teach them our boundaries. For example, if you do not wish to be bothered, simply say: ‘I’m sorry. I can’t discuss that right now. I am working on something else. How about at 4 p.m.?’ If you don’t want to work in the evenings or on weekends then don’t. Let people know when you will be available, and then do not answer calls, texts, or emails during that down time.”

2. Say you’re swamped, if you’re really swamped.

If you need to decline a request simply because you don’t have time, feel free to say so. Explain that you’d like to help, but that you are swamped right now. Just be sure it’s really true. If you’d also turn down other opportunities that might come your way, ones that you might be even more tempted to pursue, then you shouldn’t feel badly saying no now.

3. Be kind but firm.

The way you decline a request is important. If you try to cushion the blow too much, you could end up backing into a yes. So, be polite but firm when turning someone down at work.

“There is tremendous temptation to soften the no to get a better response,” author Karen Dillon tells Harvard Business Review. “But when your no is reluctant, flexible, and malleable, it gives the impression of ‘maybe I’ll change my mind,’ and it encourages your counterpart to keep pushing.”

Be polite but firm when saying no at work, lest you back into a yes by mistake.Click To Tweet

4. Politely explain what you’ll be doing instead.

It’s nice to thank someone for thinking of you when they ask for your help. So, start there. Then, explain that you’d love to help but that you plan to spend the week doing X, Y and Z, and there just isn’t time to get to everything. (Keep in mind that if this person is your boss, they might move some of your priorities around to make it work.)

5. Find some small ways to say yes.

You don’t have to take or leave the proposal altogether. Perhaps you can find an alternate solution or a compromise. Try focusing on what you can do to say yes, even if it’s just in some small way. You’d be happy to brainstorm some ideas with them tomorrow. Or, maybe you could look over the proposal once they have a draft together. Offer to help in some way if you can.

6. Explain why you might not be the best fit.

This is a great idea, as long as it’s the truth. If you’re not the best person to take on this particular task, be ready to explain why. Maybe you’ve never written a report like that before, or you don’t work well with that particular client. If you have a really good reason why this project isn’t the right one for you, by all means offer up that explanation.

7. Feel good about what you are saying yes to instead.

Finally, no matter how you go about it, remember why you’re saying no. Maybe you’re saying no to a big project at work, so that you can learn new skills that will allow you to work on other big projects later. Maybe you’re turning down an opportunity because you want to build your side business, or spend more time with your family. Sometimes you have to say no at work so that you can say yes somewhere else. You can feel good about that.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have a difficult time saying no at work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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