You feel pretty proud when you’re capable of voicing your opinion and standing your ground. You’re pretty quick on the draw to shut someone down when you know they’re about to give you an MLM scheme sales pitch. You have no trouble telling someone random a firm “no” when put on the spot, because you’ve learned it’s easier to be closed off than to open up. When all is said and done though, the art of how to say no at work throws you off again and again…and again.
But you can say no at work and actually get ahead.
The next time your colleague invites you to do some of their work because they’re overwhelmed and want to pawn it off, you can say no. That’s it. But this time, say no without an excuse that pretty much sounds like a lame excuse.
Does this feel weird?
It might, if only because you’re probably used to attaching an excuse with the no. It’s especially evident when you have the disease to please. It’s habit; you want to soften the blow and let them down easy since no is a form of rejection, and nobody wants to get rejected whether it’s with a friend, a colleague, or a dating partner. So when you try to say no but really have no valid reason other than you just don’t want to get involved, your brain rapidly tries to think of an excuse you can add. More often than not, when you’re trying to figure out how to say no at work, the excuse sounds…well, lame.
But two things will happen over time if you can get better at how to say no at work:
- It’ll become much easier over time, and
- you’ll quickly realize people don’t really give a crap in the long term if you say no.
The Dreaded Maybe
If there’s one word that’s wiggled its way into society’s vocabulary, it’s “maybe”.
”Maybe I’ll join”.
“Let me think about it and get back to you”.
“I’m not sure I’ll get back to you”.
“Give me a bit, I’ll let you know soon”.
Most people have this grand idea that if they avoid a commitment until the very end and keep pushing it off (even knowing they don’t want to do it), the other party will eventually understand it as a no through mental osmosis. Everything will be grand, they’ll forget they asked you, and you take off like a bandit who just robbed the bank.
Unfortunately, the opposite usually occurs, and you come across as indecisive and annoying by sitting on the fence.
It gets to a point where swapping a “no” for a “maybe” often enough labels you as “that” person; you know, the one who says maybe but actually means a no. It gets so bad, colleagues just stop asking you. You’re probably thinking “well hang on, this is exactly what I want! No more colleagues asking me to get involved with stupid things, I’ve mastered the art of how to say no at work!”
This is exactly what you don’t want though, because it means you may actually miss out on good opportunities, the ones you’d love to say yes to. As much as you’ll have to filter through the no’s, you want the opportunities coming your way so you can jump at the right yes.
So if you want to learn how to say no at work the right way, here’s seven ways you can achieve just that.
Seven Ways On How To Say No At Work
1. Show a bit of empathy
The more annoying the proposal is, the easier it becomes to snap at the poor sap who brought forth such a ridiculous request. It’s not difficult to come up with choice words wrapped in a passive aggressive tone that sends a clear message.
Try your hardest to avoid this kind of situation. Even though your time is valuable, and people don’t really seem to have a respect for that, it doesn’t mean you have to unleash or be an asshole.
The quickest and simplest way to show a little empathy is to preface your eventual no with something that makes them understand you know where they’re coming from. If they’re overwhelmed with work and try to pawn it off, you can try using “Look, I know you’re in over your head with work, but…”
Truth is, we’ve all been in their position and this is where the empathy really kicks in. Empathy, at its core, is the ability understand where someone is coming from, and that usually happens when you’ve been in their shoes before. While it’s hard to show empathy when they’re asking you to do something ridiculous to help them out, understand they’re probably desperate for help and have nowhere else to turn. Chances are you were, and will be, in their position at some point and the tables will be reversed.
Would you want someone being a smart-ass to you?
2. Refer them to someone or something else
When you say no to someone, it’s usually best to give them a second option for consideration.
Outside of the workplace, think of a situation where you’re dating someone new and they invite you somewhere but you genuinely just can’t make it so you have to obviously tell them no. But leaving it there will have them a little butt hurt, because remember “no” is a form of rejection. So the fastest way to stay in good graces is offer an alternate time or date. A simple “no I can’t unfortunately, but I’m free to go on Saturday evening or at 8PM tonight instead of 6PM.”
That initial gut punch from reading the “no” immediately softens when they can clearly see you’re still interested, because no one in their right mind would string someone along by offering an alternate time if they weren’t interested (right…?). In the same way, you can apply this tactic if you want to learn how to say no at work. If you want to let them down softly, instead of just saying no with a useless and obvious excuse, refer them.
“No, I can’t unfortunately, but I think you might want to ask Sue, she might have more bandwidth.” Sorry Sue, you may have gotten thrown under the bus for a hot second, but you have the ability to say no too, after all.
Or if you want, you can refer them to a different idea. “No, I can’t unfortunately, but you might want to consider asking your boss if you can hold off until next week on this.” Who knows, maybe they hadn’t thought of a different way to approach it.
3. The alternate time offer
If you don’t mind helping a colleague but are just flat out overwhelmed with your own work and responsibilities right now, you can offer to help them at a later date. “No, but I should have more availability in a few days. If you still need help then, come find me.”
Or maybe instead of a few days, all it takes is just a few hours until you’re able to help them.
But either way, you should never feel obligated to help on the spot just because you’re asked to. By offering an alternate, you’re accomplishing two things: they won’t feel the burn from a rejection, and they know you’re willing to help and thus have their back.
4. The slight delay
Another option exists: keep them in limbo for just a bit of time. If you’re determined to say no but feel you’re really put on the spot all of a sudden, defer them and use time to your advantage. “No, I can’t right now, but come find me in a few hours if you haven’t found help and I’ll see if I’m free then.” One of the important keys here is making it a point to say “if you haven’t found help by then”. Make it obvious you want them to ask someone else, and only get back to you if they’re flat out of luck. Many times, this works like a charm.
By the time a few hours pass, and they’re desperate for help, they’ll have found it elsewhere. At the time, you just happened to be the first person they came across. It’s important you don’t use this strategy every time to stretch things out, because you’ll inevitably turn into the “maybe” person described above.
5. The call out
Use this one with a little more discretion, because it’s really important to have empathy somewhat mastered when trying this tactic. Unfortunately, empathy is on the decline in society, so another warning: if you aren’t sure if you have a lot of empathy, use this with caution.
If a coworker approaches you with a ridiculous ask, you can try turning it back on them. Ask them to clarify what they’re asking you for, so at least they have a chance to listen to themselves out loud as they explain it. Hopefully, at this point, they realize how ridiculous they sound.
If they have a brain cramp and fail to see it, you can softball pitch something like “do you understand that you’re asking me to do X, Y, and Z?” By putting it directly back in their face, it gives another chance for them to try and soak in what they’re asking of you. If the second part fails, you’ll move on to the final one: telling them that what they’re asking of you isn’t in your wheelhouse. “Unfortunately, doing X, Y, and Z isn’t part of my job responsibilities, and as much as I’d love to help, I’m not the right person to ask.”
6. Claim you wouldn’t do a good job
Another option on how to say no at work is to outright say that as much as you appreciate them thinking of you for help, what they need falls out of your range of what you consider “things you’re good at”, and therefore…you’d essentially screw up their work.
This works pretty well because no one wants to delegate work to someone else for it to be done really badly and risk the blame getting thrown at them. They’ll think twice about pushing for your help, for the fear that you may be right: asking someone in accounting to look at some marketing material, or vice versa, may not be the smart choice. It’s just not worth the gamble to make the both of you look really bad. It’s a lose/lose situation.
7. The double or triple
Many times, you’ll have to wrap a couple of these strategies in one because some colleagues are persistent and don’t get the hint. If you say no and offer up someone else, they may hold their ground and reply with “well I’ve already asked them” or “no way, I know them well enough, I’ll get an earful”. If that’s the case, you have to think on the fly and shoot from the hip with a second strategy listed above, saying something along the lines of “ok, that’s fine, but I’m still really busy right now and can’t help, so try to find someone else and come back to me in a few hours if you haven’t.” Here, you’ve used the referring to someone else strategy, and then stacked on the slight delay strategy.
This can be done effectively without sounding desperate to get them off your tail, but it’ll simultaneously make it really obvious you don’t want to deal with them at this moment. Just make sure you don’t stack more than three together (at a maximum), because then you will look desperate. The trickiest part with this one is thinking on your feet, especially when you utilize one strategy thinking 100% they’ll accept it and they don’t.
Remember, People Don’t Care as Much as You Think
If you’re afraid your coworkers will flip out on you for bailing or declining their favor, you can rest assured knowing they’re so busy in their own head, they won’t really give as much of a damn as you think. Sure, you might garner a bit of the “oh come on man, why not?” in the form of some peer pressure. Stay firm; if you suddenly go back on your decision, you’re back in “maybe” territory and look like a bumbling hot mess.
Stay strong, stay calculated, and most importantly, stay level headed. If you’re good at what you do and have a reputation, coworkers will inevitably come to you for help. Can you blame them? It’s going to be up to you to put the walls up and selectively choose what benefits not just them but you, too.