How to Say No Politely: At Work and In Life 

 November 17, 2020

By  Marie

Saying "no" can be difficult. So, how to say no politely? There are techniques you can use in order to safeguard your time and resources while maintaining good relationships.

“It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much”

steve jobs

Whether at work or in your personal life, it is important to be able to reject people's proposals or requests.

Let's go over how.

Why Do We Have a Hard Time Saying “No”?

woman on how to say no politely

People, instinctively, want to be liked. 

We are driven towards wanting to be included.

For this reason, we follow trends. We imitate others. And we try to please those around us.

People fear that saying no will make them seem selfish, uncaring, or lazy. That saying “no” is the rejection of another person.

There is a fear that this will negatively impact how others think of them. 

Saying no can be particularly difficult for women, who have additional societal pressures to be likable.

If men are assertive, they are perceived to be likable and respect-worthy leaders. 

Whereas women are seen as likable when they are compliant.

Last but not least, “no” is trained out of us at an early age.

Children are taught that they must comply with the instructions of others. That saying “no” is not polite or even unacceptable.

Remember that time when you said “no” to hugging a relative goodbye. And then the relative acted very disappointed. And eventually, your parents made you hug them anyway?

All of these small instances in our childhoods add up to a general sense that “no” will upset people. And that using it will cause you to be an outcast.

For all of these reasons, we say “yes” much more often than we should.

Why You Have to Say “No”

why you have to say no

Your time is limited. You will never get back the time that you have used.

Saying “no” is exerting control over your time. And subsequently, over your life.

It is the practice of safeguarding your most valuable resource

Saying "no" is self-love.

When you agree to something in the moment, it may provide a temporary sense of relief. You have avoided potential social awkwardness or conflict. 

Saying “yes” also circumvents the unpleasant process of saying “no”.

But by saying “yes” you are committing your most precious resource, time, to someone else.

The time that could otherwise be used to support your needs and goals, rather than someone else’s.

Or the time that you could invest into your family or close loved ones.

In the case of work, saying "yes" may be ignoring more pressing tasks where your time could be used to bring more value to the business.

This isn’t to say that you should be selfish with your time. That you should never use it for the good of others.

But you do need to prioritize your time.

Think about all of the situations where we blame a lack of time for not being able to care for our own needs and goals.

“I don’t have time to” or “I am too busy to”...

  • Go to the gym
  • Cook healthy food
  • Read
  • Start a business

But the reality is that you don’t have time for these things because you are saying “yes” to others (or being unproductive).

Or in the case of work, your "yes" might result you in sacrificing personal hours in order to complete the request.  

A request that may not be critical to the business. But rather just a singular individual.

So, make sure you are being careful with your commitments. And don't let the pressure of saying "yes" steer you away from saying "no".

The reality is, the more often you begin to say "no" the easier it will become.

So now that you know you need to say "no" more often, how to say no more politely?

How to Say No Politely in Your Personal Life

how to say no politely in your personal life

Frankly, you don’t always need to be polite when saying “no” in your personal life.

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to simply say “no” and move on.

Not everyone in your life deserves a reason for your “no”.

But if this is an individual with whom you are particularly close to and the request is a sensitive topic, it may be harder to say “no”.

In these circumstances, I recommend the following approach to say “no”, politely.

Be direct and firm

Regardless of who you are saying "no" to, you should always be direct about it.

Dancing around it or “rambling” rather than beginning your answer with “no” will just cause frustration from the other person.

People respect directness.

Even if they don't always like it. 

In addition to being direct, you must communicate “no” in a firm manner. Especially if you are sound in your decision.

If you know you need to decline, don’t say “I don’t think so” or “I don’t believe I can”.

Instead, make your decision very clear.

“I can’t do that”

“I can’t agree to that”

This approach demonstrates your decisiveness. Another quality that garners respect.

If you approach saying “no” by being direct and decisive, it is much less likely that the individual will begin to challenge your decision.

On the contrary, if someone senses that you are unsure they will use that in order to try to sway you to the other side.

Provide a brief reason

You don’t always need to provide a reason. But if it is important for you that the other individual understands your thinking, then you should provide a justification.

Whether or not this is important will depend on your relationship with the individual and what they are asking from you.

Providing a justification for your decision allows the individual to understand your reasoning.

It allows them to empathize easier.

But, providing a justification may open the door for the individual to question whether your reason is valid.

Whether this occurs depends on two factors: the individual and how you communicate your reason.

If you offer a reason, make sure that it is to an individual that has respect for you. 

If you provide a justification to an individual who consistently disrespects you and your time, it is likely that they will simply disregard the justification. 

They will start questioning you and your logic.

For these types of people, you should avoid providing a reason all together.

If you are speaking to an individual that does respect you, deliver your reason briefly and with firmness.

Going into too much detail surrounding your reason can make you seem unsure.

It may sound like you are attempting to convince yourself rather than the other individual.

When that happens, you begin to be questioned and pushed to say "yes".

Instead, keep it brief.

“I have another appointment at that time so I cannot do that.”

“We already have a trip planned so we won’t be able to join you.”

Remember to deliver your reason with confidence.

Smile but convey strong body language. Good posture with strong eye contact. A firm tone.

You are providing the reason in order to help the other person understand, not to justify yourself or open the door for further questioning. 

Make that clear with how you deliver your "no".

Offer an Alternative

If you are able to offer an alternative to the proposal, it will certainly help to smooth things over. 

For anyone who has children you know that asking:

“Do you want the snowman pajamas or fish pajamas?”

is much more effective than:

“Which pajamas do you want to wear?”.

The psychology behind this does not change with age.

Providing someone an alternative (or two) boxes their thought process into the options provided. 

This is more ideal than allowing them to brainstorm all of the possible alternatives, many of which may not work for you.

“I can’t do dinner on Thursday. I have another commitment.

Would Monday or Tuesday work instead?”

“I cannot drive you there on Friday. I have a work commitment at that time.

Perhaps Lisa or Julie are free?”

Providing an alternative also demonstrates your attempt to help the individual.

This will make them more receptive to your rejection.

How to Say No Politely at Work

how to say no politely at work

It is critical for you to prioritize your time at work on projects and tasks that bring the most value to the business. And to your career growth.

By doing this, you will ensure both the success of the business as well as your own growth.

Hoping for that promotion?

Demonstrate that you are able to effectively prioritize your time and bring more value than the business is currently investing in you.

For this reason, it is absolutely essential to know how to politely say no at work.

Unlike in your personal life, you do need to tread slightly more carefully at work.

Your image and reputation are incredibly important in the workplace.

So, you want to say “no” in a way that does not make a co-worker or manager feel that you are entirely unhelpful or unprofessional.

How you do this varies by situation and the co-worker.

Let’s go over some common scenarios.

Before Saying No at Work

Before saying “no” to anything at work, ensure that you have taken adequate time to assess the request.

You should clearly understand why you must say “no”.

Here are some common reasons for saying “no” at work

  • There are other competing priorities that are more important to the business
  • You don’t have the expertise or experience to adequately fulfill the request
  • The request is inappropriate or makes you feel uncomfortable
  • It does not benefit you or the business
  • There is a better way or approach 

So, decide why you need to say no. This will inform the approach you take to do so.

Don't feel pressure to provide an answer the moment you are asked.

If you need to assess your time and other work to determine whether you need to say "no" simply say:

"I'm not sure if I can commit to that at the moment. I need to take a look at my other priorities. Can I get back to you later today or tomorrow?"

Do try to provide an answer within 24 hours.

How to Say No Politely to a Peer or Colleague

When saying “no” to a peer, consider the manner in which you do so.

You want to say no without negatively impacting the perception that you are collaborative.

This is actually easier than it seems.

You simply need your peer to understand why you are saying “no” and help them find an alternative solution.

Help them empathize.

If a peer is asking for help on a task that is not critical to the business and you do not have time to help with, you can respond:

“Unfortunately I have some other really high priority tasks that I am currently working on.

I do know that John actually has experience with this type of work. Have you asked him whether he has the bandwidth to help?”

It is important that you are viewed as a collaborator in the workplace rather than a roadblock. 

Saying “no” while providing an alternative solution demonstrates that you are a team player.

It is very important to be firm when you say “no.”

If a teammate continues to press for your time or participation, do not cave in.

You can try to explain your position in a different manner to help them understand but make sure that the answer remains “no."

It is critical to be decisive at work, just like it is to be collaborative.

How to Say No Politely to Your Manager

The most important aspect of saying "no" to your manager is to provide justification.

You want to ensure your manager understands what is holding you back from being able to say yes. 

You should never use any of the following reasons for saying “no” to a manager

  •  It’s too hard
  •  It is outside the scope of your job
  •  Personal events (with the exception of large events such as your wedding that   have been previously discussed)

The most common two reasons for having to say “no” are: your workload is too high or you don’t have the knowledge to complete the task.

In either of these scenarios, I would recommend what some would call a soft “no”. 

You don’t want to be quite as direct as you would be with a peer.

So, rather than saying outright “no because…” try the following:

“I’d be happy to take on that project. 

Can we talk about where this project falls in terms of prioritization?

Based on my current workload, I will have to de-prioritize some of my other tasks in order to take on this project. So that will result in some delays from dates we discussed previously”

Notice how this answer is very collaborative in nature. 

You are not saying “No, I can’t take this on because I have too many other projects.”

But rather the meaning behind your answer is “I’ll take it on, but something else will have to give”.

This response demonstrates your desire to support the business to the best of your ability.

If you need to say “no” to a manager because you are being assigned a task that you do not have the skill set for, first consider why your manager is asking you to complete the task.

Do they believe you have a skill set that you do not?

Or, do they see this as a potential growth opportunity?

Additionally, consider whether growing this skill set WOULD be to your benefit.

If you are unsure why your manager is asking you to do a particular task, ask. It is important for employees to understand the WHY behind their assignments.

If the task could be beneficial to your growth but you do not have the skill, request help:

“I’d be happy to take that on. This would be very new to me, as I haven’t developed this skill set. 

Who could help me learn so that I can take this task on?”

If you believe this skill set is not something you can learn or would benefit you to learn, redirect the request:

“This is not something I have expertise in. 

I know Jane has experience in this area. Perhaps she would be a better individual to consider for this project?”

If your manager continues to press for you to take it on, ask why they believe you are the best person for the task.

So, have an open and honest conversation to understand their point of view. 

Then determine if there is a pathway for you to discuss redirecting the work to another individual.

So those are my tips on how to say no politely.

So, have you had a difficult conversation where you had to say "no"?

Do you have more tips on how to say no politely?

Tell me about it below!

Check out these others articles for personal development:

How to Overcome Challenges in Life

64 Monthly Goals to Live Intentionally

15 Critical Personal Development Activities and Exercises

8 Best Books for Communication Skills

8 Self-Reflection Questions to Ask Yourself Regularly

Build Self Confidence, 7 Tips How to Do It

How to Say No Politely: At Work and In Life

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