Points North

The Glorious Art of Saying No

on Sep 05, 2021 in Business


A simple word, and yet so powerful. In fact, it’s poetic. And it’s actually a complete sentence all by itself. It might even have been the first word you learned, but for some reason it has made its way to the back of your vocabulary closet. Welp, it’s time to dust it off and put it to good use.

Saying no helps you establish healthy boundaries. Additionally, it enables others to have transparency around what they can expect from you. You might find it easy to do this with friends or family. For example – “No, I can’t pick you up from the airport at 5am” or “No, I’m not able to babysit your tarantula this weekend.”

When we crossover into the workplace, however, saying no to your colleagues, your direct reports, your manager, or even those all the way up the totem pole becomes an unnerving situation. Why?

Author William Ury (in his book “The Power of a Positive No”), suggests the battle we encounter in saying no often comes from an internal struggle between plugging into our own sense of power and a simultaneous desire to cater to, or foster, a relationship. When you think about work, which is nothing but relationships, it makes total sense.

We want to be easy-going and agreeable, helpful even. Disappoint someone? Not us. But consider this, each yes you give when you really want to say no plants a seed of resentment and regret. Those seeds can grow into being overworked, overwhelmed, exhausted, and all things counter to your own well-being.

Let’s walk through some ways to say no at work (don’t worry, we aren’t going to get you in trouble).

You can think about it #assesstherequest

Did you know you don’t have to answer right away? Before responding hastily (with a yes or a no), you can let the requester know that you need a moment to consider the request, and you’ll absolutely get back to them. Evaluate the request. Is it a small task that can be done rather quickly, or is it a long term initiative? What’s at stake? Consider what’s on your plate and if things can be shifted around.

Honesty is best

Don’t have the bandwidth? That’s ok. If it’s really not feasible, then you can say no. A good thing to add to your reply is context, especially as it pertains to your workload. Be honest and upfront about your reasons (and be as direct as possible). Making up excuses can easily come across as disingenuous. This is actually a good moment to be candid. For example, if you’re unable to help because your other projects would take a hit, you can totally say something like “I just wouldn’t be able to do a good job on your project and finish my workload at the same time.” If you’re challenged, stay firm and on message. If you feel it’s appropriate, you can offer up what you can complete. Maybe you can’t write the first draft of the proposal, but you’re happy to review it and provide feedback. There might be small ways you can help. This shows you are compassionate and empathetic.

Say it like you mean it, but don’t be mean.

How’s your tone? What about body language? Please don’t roll your eyes, purse your lips, or let out a long exasperated sigh. You can be kind and firm at the same time. You can say no, neutrally. Don’t make it soft, lest you leave open a sliver of hope that you might eventually be persuaded to say yes. If the person keeps pushing, that’s just going to make things uncomfortable for both sides.

Bottom line – don’t make someone feel bad for coming to you for help. Eventually, we’ll all end up needing a favor or two.


Go in your bathroom, close the door, and look yourself in the eyes in the mirror. Ready? Say it. No. How did it feel? Uneasy? Unnatural? Did you own it? What was your expression?

You want your demeanor to be diplomatic, and your tone to be clear. This is a skill you have to practice like anything else, and it will definitely get easier over time. Once you feel confident in your bathroom mirror, loop in a trusted friend or colleague to help you practice (not in the bathroom, of course). Come up with a scenario, and you’re the one who has to say no. You can also have a few go-to statements in your back pocket that you’ve rehearsed if you find that you easily get flustered in the moment.

You’ve heard this saying before – you can’t please everyone. Well, it’s true. And if pleasing everyone comes at the expense of your own well-being or sanity, then the cost is too high.


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