How To Say “No”

No way heart picMany of my clients have struggled with the question of how to say “no” to others.* Too often, people find themselves overcommitted and resentful and doing things they don’t like.

Let’s use an example of a colleague’s asking you to be in charge of a project. You are in charge of several projects right now and you are not interested in this one. Your supervisor said it was up to you to decide. Here are some ideas for how to say “no”:

  • Thank you, no. “Thank you for thinking of me for this project! I need to say no to the idea of being in charge of it, but I do appreciate the offer.”
  • I’m sorry, I can’t. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I can’t do that right now.”
  • No, unless/Yes, if. “Yes, I’d be glad to take on that project if we can make it doable for me. Here is what I would need in order to agree to be in charge of it….” [eg. someone to take on some of the other work, an extended deadline, extra help, etc.]
  • No, I don’t want to. “No, I’m not interested in doing that.”
  • No, I can’t do it because… “No, I won’t be available to work on that project because I’m working on another important project.” Note: While this is a helpful way to say “no” sometimes, it does invite people to argue with you and try to convince you into doing what they want. If that happens, you probably will need to go to another kind of “no.”

What do you do when you’ve said “no” but the person asking you persists or asks you to justify your decision? In some cases, you may need to provide reasons for your decisions (to your boss, for example, or if your partner asks for something important). But in many situations, I find the most helpful approach is the “broken record” method. If anyone aside from me remembers actual record albums, you know that if there was a scratch in the record then the record would “skip” and get stuck playing the same piece over and over again. When the asker does not respect your initial “no,” then you keep saying “no” in a similar way (like a broken record) until the person stops asking. For example:

You: Thank you for thinking of me for this project! I need to say no to the idea of being in charge of it, but I do appreciate the offer.

Colleague: Well, I really do think you are the best person for the project. You are really the one who should do it.

You: That’s so kind of you to say. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to take on a project like this, but I need to say no to this one.

Colleague: Why can’t you do it?

You: I can see how much you want me to do it and, again, I appreciate your thinking of me, even though I’m not going to take it on.

Colleague: If you won’t do it, then who will? This is ridiculous. You really need to step up here.

You: I know, it is so stressful finding someone to take the lead on projects like this! I’m sure you will be able to figure something out. I am confident I’ll be able to help out on some future projects.

What you will notice in the above example is that there was no attempt to justify or even explain the “no.” Therefore, it is difficult to argue against the “no” — there is nothing to argue about.

It occurs to me as I write this post that although many adults have difficulty saying “no” to each other, adults seem to say “no” to children all the time. What is that about, do you think?

  1. * Others have difficulty saying “yes,” but that’s for a future post. []

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