Say “No” and Mean it

“No.” How can a word so small and so precise be so difficult to utter? There are times we struggle to say it. We agree to requests that we don’t have the time to actually take on. We acquiesce were we should demur. At other times, however, we do decline. We do so politely, offering up an explanation wrapped in an apology and steeped in guilt. “No.” It really shouldn’t be that hard. “No” isn’t a dirty word. In fact, it’s a strong, healthy word that you and I need to learn to use more often. We need to say no when a coworker asks us to add another project to our already overwhelmed plate of responsibilities. We need to say no when the head of the PTA asks us to chair the annual gift auction that falls right smack dab in the middle of our midterms. As discussed previously, saying “No” is an important part of taming your work day. It can also be one of the hardest lifehacks to master. Saying “No” may not be easy for you, but I hope with these tips, it’ll be easier.

Take inventory

The person standing before you wants an answer. Sometimes they wanted it yesterday, or so you assume. The pressure to respond quickly adds stress, which makes declining even harder. Take a breath and ask for time. “When do you need an answer? I want to be sure I can give this project the attention it deserves. To that end, I need to assess my bandwidth before I agree to take this on.” Now, take a good hard look at the request. Is it something that you have the skills to do? Is it something you have time to do? Will your primary responsibilities suffer from neglect? Is this project worth shuffling around your obligations to take on? In other words, you may not have time to manage the PTA’s biggest fundraiser with the way your calendar exists today, but it is something you’d love to do. It has the potential to grow skill sets, plus it helps your kids and you’re all for that. Can you shuffle your priorities around to make it work?

Keep it simple

Does your “no” sound more like “I really wish I could, but right now I’m not sure I have the time to take this one on. I’m really sorry. If there’s anything else I can do to help going forward, let me know.”? Try this instead: “Thank you for thinking of me. At this time, however, I don’t have the bandwidth to take this project on and give it the attention it requires to be completed successfully.”

Release the guilt

Pay close attention to this one: someone is asking you to step in and take on this project or task because they don’t have the time/skills/desire to do it themselves. They’ve already said no to it. They are delegating, and that’s fantastic! They should absolutely delegate if they don’t have the time/skills/desire to do this project. However, that also means that you can say no to it also without feeling the guilt. You don’t need to offer up a long explanation as to why you’re too busy. You don’t need to feel bad about turning them down. If you have an idea of another person who may be willing/able to step in, go ahead and make that suggestion. Just don’t feel bad if that person isn’t you.

Watch your body language

Don’t get caught in conflicting messages. Watch that you mouth isn’t saying “No, I can’t take that on right now,” while your body is saying “I’m so sorry. I feel awful for telling you this. I wish I could help.” Don’t look down at your shuffling feet while you grimace and shrug. Part of saying “no” and meaning it, is meaning it. Your gaze and your posture should be as firm as your words.

Practice makes perfect

We practice for our speeches. We practice our musical instruments. We practice sports. We need to practice saying no. Whether you sit yourself in front of a mirror and role play out your half of a conversation or you enlist a trusted friend to run through it with you, take the time to practice delivering “no” in a calm, clear, diplomatic manner. (Hint: a mentor or coach would be a terrific study buddy for this!) If you need a hand, I’d be happy to help. Contact my office for a chat: 917-992-2928. Or email