How to say no: Three ways to refuse requests

Tearing your hair out: turning your boss down can seem more stressful than overburdening yourself
Treat your time and expertise like finite resources
No is a powerful word. With just two letters, we risk burning bridges, squandering opportunities and sabotaging our reputation. “One of our most fundamental needs is for social connection and a feeling that we belong,” the University of Waterloo’s Vanessa Bohns told the Wall Street Journal. “Saying ‘no’ feels threatening to our relationships and that feeling of connectedness.”
We often feel obliged to acquiesce to requests, particularly from our bosses, for fear of seeming uncooperative or incapable, but learning to refuse could be beneficial in the long term. While “yes men” risk spreading themselves too thinly and underperforming, saying “no” could earn you the trust and respect of your colleagues who know they can count on your word. Here are some ways to overcome the fear.


We tend to view saying “no” as disruptive and aggressive. Indeed, research by John Cacioppo and the University of Chicago found that negative information produces a surge in the cerebral cortex’s electrical output as a means of defence. We don’t like saying “no” to others because we know how bad it feels. But the best way to guard against your guilt and ensure your resolve is to be forthright.
Phrasing your refusal in concrete terms may increase your chances of sticking to it, instead of caving in. Being direct and saying “I don’t have the time” could reduce your chances of buckling under pressure. A study by Vanessa Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt in 2011 found that people who say “I don’t” when refusing are almost half as likely to give in as those who said “I can’t”. According to the researchers, this is “because the former connotes conviction to a higher degree”.


There are circumstances when you need to say “no” but tact is required. Like all resources, your expertise and time are finite, so use a vocabulary to underscore that. If you only have the time to do one task, “you can always ask your boss if the new assignment should replace an existing assignment you have, and let him make the decision,” retention specialist Sara Mahuron told Chron.
Explain that you don’t have enough time to perform the task well or that you don’t have knowledge about a particular area, but that you’ll help whomever does in any way you can. “You don’t have to lie,” chief executive of AIM Leadership Camille Preston told Fortune. “It’s not a lie to say that there are other things on your plate or in the pipeline”.


Expressing gratitude at the end of a refusal will help to soften the blow. It implies that you are still keen to maintain the relationship. Preston recommends having a few phrases prepared, such as “unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it, but thanks for the invitation”. Or if you’re pressed, “I’m just not able to make it, but thanks so much.”
If you are unable to help, admit that you can’t and recommend a colleague who can. This will help to preserve your relationship by showing your willingness and demonstrating your effective role as part of a network.

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