How To Say No… And Be Labeled As Helpful.

Being mindful of when to say ‘No’ and how to say ‘No’ is one of the most important opportunities for you to gain better control over your time management and personal productivity… and therefore help you achieve your long-term career goals.

This is my second post on saying no – the first being When To Say No… And Not Be Labeled As Unhelpful.

A blunt refusal to help is almost guaranteed to burn bridges and damage your goodwill. The secret is to know when to say ‘No’, and also how to say ‘No’.

How To Say NoIf you are about to say ‘No’, you want to be sure the people around you understand you are making a thoughtful – even helpful decision; the last thing you want to do is say ‘Yes’ and let people down. Saying ‘No’ mindfully reinforces that you are aware of your workload, you are a good time manager and that when you take on a project you will complete it thoroughly and on time.

When you say ‘Yes’ you want to make sure that by doing this you also do yourself a favour by gaining experience and connections (as described in When To Say No…), and you are collecting good-will as a team player – good-will that at some point might need to flow in your direction.

Step 1: Before You Say ‘No’… or Even ‘Yes’

  1. Actively Listen To The Request. The best thing you can do to protect your reputation is to show people you care about their needs – mindful listening skills will serve you well here. Even if you expect your answer will be ‘No’, take 5 solid, uninterrupted minutes to show you are interested in their well-being and understand what their request is. Be careful when you make assumptions about their needs; let them talk it out and perhaps ask a few questions to clarify.
    Talking out their needs might help them see their needs from a new perspective and come up with other options. This might also identify an opportunity for you to invest another 5 minutes and easily help them – time well spent. The alternative of just saying, “No, I’m too busy” will come across as insensitive and selfish. If you listen to them and still say ‘No’, they will still have good feelings about you and your relationship.
  2. Stay Positive. Take pride that they asked you. Who asks someone whom he or she doesn’t trust for help? Nobody! So, keep a smile on your face as you actively listen to their request. Don’t judge them poorly for asking you. If you think “They must be jerks or daft or something – can’t they see how busy I am?” it will likely show on your face and not do either of you any good – especially if it is your boss.
  3. Take Time To Respond… Don’t React. This goes hand-in-hand with points 1 and 2. Before saying ‘No’ or even ‘Yes’ to something you will regret later, ask for an hour or half-a-day to check through your other priorities and see if other critical deadlines might have some flexibility. This lets you evaluate your goals and you put things into perspective. It demonstrates responsibility to the person asking you, and in that short amount of time, the problem might resolve itself in another way.
  4. Avoid Email When You Say No. Email étiquette training tells us we never want to deliver bad news by email and this is another example. Tone and sensitivity are virtually lost in email writing. Your care and respect for their well-being can be easily expressed within a conversation – but misinterpreted in an email. Email writing is also a one-way message with no flexibility to offer options (because the needs might have changed since your first discussion). So if you have to say “No”, say it in person or at least over the phone. If you can do a video call – that is also great.

Step 2: What To Say When You Say ‘No’

  1. Prioritize Your Goals With Your Boss. If you can manage the smaller task without bothering your boss do that. However, if a large request is being made of you – or if your boss is asking you to add a new priority, spend a few minutes with them to recap your current priorities, deliverables and time-lines.
    The goal here is to let your boss know in advance of potential impact on other projects and make them part of the plan – this is your responsibility – don’t assume they know every aspect of every project on your desk. If this new project needs to take priority over something else, let your boss work with you to decide what priority needs to drop a point or two.
  2. I’m Not The Best Fit – Bob Might Be. If you’re being asked to do something that is someone else’s job, you should not overstep your boundaries unless you are intentionally being asked to give back-up and/or to give you experience for future job opportunities. Saying,“I think Bob is the person you need. I’m not sure what his priorities are now or if he has time – but he has accountability and experience in this area” is a respectable and helpful way to management this.  Saying “That’s not my job – go see Bob.” Does the same thing – but is cold and positions you as a jerk that is unhelpful and uncaring rather than a team player.
  3. I Can Do This Later; Starting X. There is nothing wrong with having a full schedule. If the request / project is something you want to say ‘Yes’ to, suggest your availability in a day, a week or even a month. Letting people know when you are available gives them perspective they can respect and manages their expectations. Perhaps the project can wait for you – if you get to it sooner then great. Perhaps they need the job done earlier and may find someone else to work on it.
    If you suggest an alternate availability, be sure you don’t spend the next day chatting with co-workers about weekend activities and taking a 2-hour lunch at the gym. If they see you doing this you’ll find you’re quickly losing respect and good-will you’ve earned.


Short-term work / life imbalance for long-term gain is an investment many senior people made early in their careers. For this early investment they now have successful careers with quality work / life balance. But, even if you have to say ‘No’, try to help solve the requester’s problem.

Happy communicating.

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About Bruce Mayhew
Bruce Mayhew is a Leadership Coach, Keynote Speaker and Corporate Trainer who builds strong client and co-worker relationships that give clients a competitive advantage. Our training and development programs include: ■Generational Differences ■Effective Business Email Writing ■Email Etiquette ■Phone Etiquette ■Behaviour Event Interviewing (BEI) ■Mindfulness ■Using Linkedin to Build Client Relationships ■Objective Setting Made Easy

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