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How to Say No at Work

How to Say No at Work: Powerful Phrases to Stand Your Ground

by | Sep 19, 2022 | By Karin Hurt |

To Gain More Confidence Saying No at Work, Start with Your “Yes”

It’s never easy to say no at work. After all, you want to be helpful, responsive, and a team player. And yet, every time you say “yes” to something or someone, you’re saying “no” to something or someone else.

When you tell your boss, “Yes, I will work late tonight,” you might have to tell your daughter, “No, I can’t come to your tee-ball game.”

Or, when you tell a co-worker, “Yes, I can take on this new client.” You might also be saying, “No, I won’t be able to launch that new product this month.”

When you tell a customer, sure, “I’ll expedite your request.” You might also realize you just committed to skipping your standard quality checks.

“Yes, my team can do that for you,” might mean, “I’m going to have to postpone our team’s strategic planning offsite... again.”

How to Say No at Work

  1. Ground yourself in confidence and humility
  2. Say yes to what’s most important
  3. Know when your “know” means you should say no
  4. Say a hard no to ethics and values violations
  5. Yes, you can even say no to your boss

1. Ground Yourself in Confident Humility

In our leadership programs, we always recommend facing difficult conversations with confidence and humility.

Confidence Sentence Starters:

  • I’ve studied this problem extensively. Here’s what I know…
  • My experience tells me we should go in another direction.
  • I’m confident that we should take a different approach, here’s why…

Humble Sentence Starters:

  • I’ve got some strong opinions on this, but I’m curious about what you think.
  • I have concerns, and my inclination is to say no. But first, I’m open to your perspective.
  • What else do I need to know before I say no?

2. Say Yes to What’s Most Important

The most powerful way to gain the confidence to say no at work is to be crystal clear about what matters most. We call these your Most Important Things, or MITs.

When you’re clear about what matters most, you can reframe your “no” as a yes to the bigger picture.

“Yes… And”

As David Dye shares in, How to Help Your Team Say No at Work, one way to do this is by affirming the request and the value the request might represent—that’s the “yes.” Then bridge to the context, consequences, and decisions—that’s the “and.”

For example, “Yes, it sounds like this project would benefit our marketing strategy. And, at the moment, the team is cranking hard to meet our customer’s finish line for the new product development. I can certainly prioritize this new marketing project if we can shift the product deadline. Or, we could get this new one done after the product wraps up. My preference would be to finish up with the product so we can give this our full attention. What do you think makes the most sense?”

Other powerful phrases to say yes… and

Here are a few other examples of saying no at work, while saying a respectful yes to the person and the work they’re doing.

  • I’m sorry I can’t get give you the exact support you’ve requested. What I can do is ______ (insert your “yes” here, for example, recommend another resource; meet with you for an hour to review your approach; or remove a roadblock).
  • I can see how excited you are about this initiative, that’s awesome. I wish I could help. I’ve got to stay focused on ______ (insert your MIT here).
  • Wow, I’m impressed with all you’re doing. I just don’t have the bandwidth to help with this right now.
  • Thank you so much for thinking of me! I’m honored. I’m so sorry I can’t say yes to this right now.
  • Exciting! We really have a lot going on right now. I’m going to have to pass on this opportunity right now so I can focus on _____.

3. Know When Your “Know” Means You Should Say No at Work

This is a bit more tricky. In our Courageous Cultures research, 67% of employees said their manager operates around the notion of “this is the way we’ve always done it.”

So, if you’re the boss (or an expert), how do you know if you are stuck in your ways as opposed to saying no for important and justified reasons based on your expertise?

First, Respond With Regard through gratitude, information, and an invitation to keep contributing.

  • Thank you so much for your suggestion. Here’s some additional information you might not be aware of. Considering that, I wonder what additional ideas you might have?
  • That idea would be really interesting if we were planning to expand our leadership training programs to include training llamas. But for now, our focus is training humans on human-centered leadership.
  • That idea is so fun! And, it would clearly violate _________(this law, compliance, brand standards)….I wonder what ideas you have that could accomplish something similar within those requirements?
  • That’s interesting. Have you considered ____ (add additional information here).
  • Thank you for thinking about this. However, this clearly is ______ (illegal, out of compliance, against this foundational policy). Let’s think a level deeper about the outcome you’re looking for, and how we might get there.

4. Say a Hard “No” to Values Clashes and Ethics Violations

I’m not sure who said this first, but sometimes “no is a complete sentence”.

If someone is asking you to do something unethical, immoral, or illegal, a hard no may be in order.

  • That’s a hard no because _________.
  • This doesn’t feel right to me, let’s call ________ (legal, HR, compliance).
  • That doesn’t sit right with me ethically.
  • Nope, can’t do that, it’s a clear violation of our code of conduct.
  • No. That’s completely inappropriate for you to ask me to do that.

5. And, Yes, You Can Even Say “No” to Your Boss

You may think, “great these ‘how to say no at work’ phrases might work well for a coworker, but it’s much harder to say no to my boss!”

I get it. And, yet some variations of the above phrases can work, even with your boss.

Again, start with what you can say yes to…

  • I’m deeply committed to the success of the team and to this project. What you’re asking me to do here would mean _______. Which concerns me because of ________. An alternative approach might be____.
  • This project sounds so exciting. And at the moment, I can’t take on another thing—unless we re-prioritize my current work. Can we set up some one-on-one time to talk about all I have on my plate and where my contribution will have the biggest impact?
  • I really want to support you on this, but my gut says we shouldn’t do it. Perhaps we should run this by _______ (HR, Legal, Compliance).
  • You know I’m always looking to stretch and grow. I want to contribute all I can to this company and continue to stretch and grow. I don’t think I’m the best fit for the role you’re suggesting because…

Saying no at work isn’t always easy. But when you can stay focused on the bigger yes, you’ll gain respect and accomplish more with less frustration.

Your Turn

What are your favorite phrases for saying no at work?

Related Articles:

Managing Up With Grace: How to Give Your Boss Better Feedback

How Do I Deal with a Manipulative Boss?

How to Convince Your Boss You Have a Great Solution 

Share Your Ideas: Practical Ways to Ensure Your Voice is Heard

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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