I struggled with saying no to my boss and coworkers, until I started using these 5 approaches that allowed me to say “no” without sounding rude or lazy.
It’s a situation many of us have been in: we have a get-it-done, make-it-happen attitude, we work so hard, and we don’t say no to any request that is thrown our way. And then what happens? We become overwhelmed with work, our attention pulled in many different directions, and the most important work we need to get done suffers.
The bottom line is you need to start saying no to more things. It can be tough, especially when senior folks in the company are asking you to do things, but focusing your time and setting boundaries is important for any professional. Many of these tips are inspired by Essentialism, it’s a book that changed my life.
Here are 5 ways to say “no”:
1. Use the “Yes, what should I re-prioritize?” method
This works especially well when receiving requests from superiors. Let me give you an example:
I once had a boss say to me,
- “Will you make customized agenda and place settings for each person attending the training for tomorrow? That will be such a nice touch.”
In one sentence she assigned me 3 hours of work. So I said:
- “Yes, today I am booked up completing info packets, meeting with each vendor to ensure they have everything, and syncing up with each participant – what should I re-prioritize for this?”
And she immediately responded,
- “Oh yes focus on those things, don’t worry about the place settings, it’s not that important.”
The lesson here is that when someone asks you to do something they often don’t realize how busy you are and how not important their ask is compared to everything else you are doing. When that happens say “Yes, what should I reprioritize?” And they will generally figure out something else.
2. Use a bit of humor
This one is tricky, we don’t want to be awkward, but I like to be playful to diffuse a potentially uncomfortable situation.
I had a coworker, we will call him Frank, walk by my desk say,
- “Madeline, it’s cold in here, will you change the temperature on the thermostat?”
And instead of snapping back, “No I am not the temperature monitor!” Or saying, “Okay sure,” and then resenting him for sidetracking my work, I said with a smile,
- “Frank, you’ve got that big genius brain. I have full faith that if you put your mind to it, you can figure out how to change the thermostat. You can DO IT!”
He chuckled, we had some funny banter back and forth, and then he went over and took care of it himself. It was then that I realized using humor to say “no” is a great way to keep things light at work.
3. Make it a teachable moment
Let’s say your boss asks you for something that you know they have the resources to get themselves. Such as:
- “Hey, could you tell me the dates of the conference?”
And you know that information is exactly where it’s supposed to be for them to reference. I recommend to make it a teachable moment. Say,
- “Absolutely you’ll find the full calendar is here (link) which has the conference dates and all the important milestones leading up to it.”
Don’t get in the habit of simply telling people what information they ask for, show them how to look it up themselves. I’ve noticed more often than not that the person I’m teaching truly did not know how to help themselves, and they appreciate me showing them.
4. Suggest somebody else to do it
It’s much easier to say “I can’t do it, but X might be interested” than it is to reject a request outright. You are able to come off as being helpful, without having to do the task for yourself.
Especially if you are a consultant or work for yourself, have a list of people you can refer others to. It’s a double win: you help the person asking and you refer business to someone else which strengthens your relationship with them.
My job can sometimes be a catch-all of little tasks — if you work in HR at a start-up you know what I’m talking about — so employees don’t always know where my role starts and ends. Employees get in the habit of bringing me many of their requests and if I’m not careful, I can end up spreading myself way too thin.
Therefore, when they say, “Madeline can you post this on social media?” I recommend them to reach out to the marketing department. Or, “Madeline can I get conference hardware installed in that meeting room?” I refer them to IT. I’ve realized that when I make exceptions and start helping with every little task, I become completely swamped and not able to do the most important parts of my job. Don’t be shy to suggest someone else to do a task.
5. Use the “If you can X, then I will Y” response
Someone may give you a big ask, and before agreeing to it, think about a compromise.
Such as, a boss once said to me,
- “Madeline, you’re good at writing, could you write his speech for him?”
WOW, that’s a big ask! Instead of taking on such a big task, I modified the ask:
- “Totally, how about if he writes the initial draft then I will come in and edit it and punch it up.”
That was a great compromise, I didn’t say no, I modified the ask. So think about how you can divide the work with whoever is involved.
The main thing to take away from these are that just because your boss asks you to do something doesn’t mean they require it to happen exactly the way they asked. Protect your time, redefine the ask, and empower yourself to say “no”!
For some more of my favorite tips on how to have a great healthy relationship with your boss check them out here.
This article first appeared on Quora.