When did the word “no” become impermissible at work?
Many people think they can’t say “no” on the job. They tell me, “It’s just not acceptable.” They say it’s because they work in a “can do” culture. Or, they work for a boss who is pure evil. They’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they don’t try to do everything humanly possible to bring in one more client, finish up one last project before heading home… or take on a role that really isn’t their strong suit, but hey, they will give it a try, even if it’s a lost cause.
Why do we say “yes” to something when maybe we shouldn’t?
I understand this hesitation. For the past two decades we have lived in a “NOW!” culture and saying no is rarely part of that vibe. And it’s true that any of these horrible things might happen if you say no. So maybe that’s why you say “yes” even when it’s not a good idea to do so. This was certainly true during the early days of the pandemic, when knowledge workers were sent home enmasse and worked non-stop because they feared their jobs were in danger. And even now, with certain market segments still experiencing worker shortages, other segments are laying off people in droves.
The social psychology of saying “No”
From a “people equation” (social psychology) standpoint there’s an additional, less obvious barrier—saying no is a form of rejection. When you decline a request, there’s a subtle whiff of spurning the requester. It lies below the surface, causing tension. The word “no” can stonewall, anger, or embarrass. And who wants to create that sort of drama in the workplace? For many of us, that discomfort isn’t worth it. This becomes even more fraught when you’re a women because studies show that saying “no” to requests can have adverse effects on your career mobility. So it makes sense that you would hesitate to decline a request. After all, your job is to be a team player, right? And get stuff done.
Rethinking what it means to decline a request
But the word “no” can also be the gateway to opportunity. When used well, “no” presents an opportunity to set boundaries with those you encounter at work. The word “no” isn’t the problem; it’s that people often see their choices as binary: they see “yes” or “no” as the only options when responding to a request. This either/or forced choice can leave one feeling resentful and backed into a corner.
What if you learned to say no differently, so that you didn’t feel like saying “yes” was the only option? Learning to say no in a way that creates options beyond, “Yes I will do that for you” or “No, I will not do that for you” allows you some latitude. When you have choices, you don’t feel as aggrieved.
Four different ways to say “No” professionally
Here are four different types of “no” – each having its specific place in the dialog between you and your colleagues or your work team leader. Learn the different ways in which you can use “no” and discover how an obligatory “yes” isn’t your only option.
The “Not Yet” No
Many times, the yes/no dilemma can be resolved with negotiating a time shift. Nearly everything in our society (including most work tasks) has defaulted to a deadline of “NOW.” Immediacy reigns supreme, but we forget that some things really aren’t needed right this minute. Your first step in learning comfort with “no” is to not assume that everything must be completed yesterday. So, you can tell someone “no” for now, but you will get to it in the future. Here’s what this sounds like:
“When do you need this?” (People may actually surprise you and say, “Not until the day after tomorrow.”)
“I’m on a deadline with the other project you gave me. Can I get this to you by 2 p.m. tomorrow?”
The Provisional No
This is the next step in the learning-to-say-no process. Let the requester know what you can do for them, and what you can’t. For example, maybe you can give them the spreadsheet right away, but if they want an analysis, that will have to wait. Possible ways to give a provisional “no” to your colleagues:
“Steve, I’m swamped right now. I can either give you a quick highlight right now, or I can give you something more detailed tomorrow.”
“Tessa, you’re right — I’m the point person on that project, but I’m not the expert on the analytics piece. What I can do is bring this up tomorrow morning at our team huddle and get you a contact name by 9:00 a.m.”
The “Here’s What Happens If I Say Yes” No
Many times, the answer “no” has implications that the requester hasn’t considered. As the person receiving the request, it behooves you to let the requester know what will happen if he or she demands an unreasonable request. For example, you can say:
“Carlos, I know you want me to drop everything and move on the XYZ account. Did you realize that if I do that, we’ll get behind on the ABC project?”
“Jane, I’d be happy to do that for you. I’ll need to reprioritize; I’d planned to do the budgets for the rest of the day, so now I won’t get to that until tomorrow. Which do you prefer that I tackle?”
The “No Means NO” No
Sometimes, you just need to draw a line in the sand, especially with co-workers who are trying to take advantage of you. Do not agree to do something “just this one time” to get them off your back because there is always a second (third, and fourth) time for people who think nothing of encroaching on others’ time. A “firm NO” is also helpful when you are holding others accountable for their promises.
“Jenna, we agreed on this deadline two weeks ago. When we discussed it yesterday, you said you were on track. The shipment goes out today at 5 p.m. I’m sorry, but it’s going without your package.”
“No, Bart, I won’t carry your binders back from the conference room. You have two empty arms that are fully capable of doing so.” (This one comes from real life—yes, an able-bodied peer had the audacity to ask me to carry his belongings back to his office even though he had brought them into the conference room.)
Will “no” always work? Of course not. There are jerks out there who were brought up on the “Don’t Take ‘No’ for an Answer” model of interpersonal skills. Yet knowing that there are different ways to say “no” in a non-confrontational tone can help you go a long way towards setting boundaries that help you feel more in control of your workload. So the next time your pushy colleague starts pressuring you to say “yes,” take a deep breath, and use one of these four ways to decline the request. You might be surprised at the result.
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A version of this post originally appeared on Huffington Post. It has been modified and updated here for 2023.