How to Say “No” at Work Without Upsetting Others

When confronted with a request at work most people don’t hesitate to say “yes”. But by saying “yes” to others are you saying “no” to yourself and your success?

Accepting all of your boss’s and coworkers’ requests can help you avoid confrontation, but it also takes your attention and focus away from the projects you need to work on. To be successful and manage your time effectively you must learn to use the “yes” response strategically, which of course requires you to learn when and how to say “no”.

And don’t worry, unless you say no chronically and offensively, your coworkers will likely understand your objections, allowing you to maintain your priorities and stay on-task.

how to say no

When to Say No

Let’s think seriously about stepping up your “no” game. The first consideration is when to say “no.” When someone interrupts you with a request, consider these 3 questions:

Where am I this moment?

Are you calmly working on a simple, minor task or frantically trying to make a deadline on a major project? Even if there is no deadline looming, you could be deep in thought and making progress on a tough issue. Don’t give up this momentum so easily. The more entrenched you are with meaningful work, the more you must consider saying “no.”

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How important is the request?

If the request is urgent, needs to be completed soon, or requires your particular set of skills and knowledge, your input might be crucial. Chances are, though, that you’re rarely asked to do something so serious. If it’s only a simple favor, do what’s best for yourself and your workplace – say “no” and stay on-task.

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How long will it take?

Whether the request is important or not, consider how much time you will be spending on it. If it can be finished in just a few minutes, fine, be helpful. Any more than that and you will be facing major cognitive interference. This means when you return to your task, you don’t return with full momentum – you’ll have to stop and rethink what you’ve already completed just to get back to where you left off. That’s wasted time.

If helping them will take more than two minutes, consider saying “no.”

Related: 5 Ways to Boost Credibility

4 Ways to Say “No”

Once you’re confident that it’s time to say “no,” focus on delivering your “no” more effectively. A well deserved “no” will fall flat when it’s delivered in a rude or hostile manner. Even if justified, saying “no” in an impolite way will do damage to your work relationships.

To increase the odds of your “no” being received positively, consider these tips:

1. When you speak to your coworkers, stop working, look them in the eye, and listen carefully

You show respect and attentiveness by not attempting to multitask. Give them your full, undivided attention to show that you care about their needs.

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Related: Why MultiTaskers Get Less Done

2. If there is someone else who can do the job, suggest that now

Tell the person asking for your help that this other colleague is better suited for the task, and give specific reasons why. Doing this allows you to help move the task forward by suggesting a new resource, praise a coworker and get good office karma, and, most importantly, keep the task off of your to-do list.

3. Show the person asking for your help all the projects you’re working on

Explain the importance of each, and share the deadlines, so they know that you’re not saying “no” just to say it, but instead because you do have other priorities you need to tend to. Tell them although you’d love to help them, reasons outside of your control just won’t allow you to.

Most important, now’s the time to suggest someone else who can help. This way although you’re not doing the actual task, you’re being productive by providing a resource who can.

Related: 10 Winning Beliefs that Can Change Your Life

4. If you’re having trouble saying “no,” first, say “yes”

Tell them you are happy to help, but need to finish your current task before assisting them. Be positive and give them a very specific time for follow-up to make sure their need is met. While you have their attention, add the task to you calendar. Thank them for understanding and being flexible and tell them you will see them soon.

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If you say “no” the right way, the person asking for your help will walk away satisfied, knowing that they’ll receive your help as soon as it’s available, or have a new contact to reach out to who is better suited for the task. You go back to what you were working on with only a tiny little interruption to shrug off. Win-win.

Get serious about your productivity:  reinsert “no” into your professional vocabulary and make the workplace a little better for everyone – especially yourself.


todd dewitt head shotDr. Dewett is an author, speaker, coach, management professor, radio host, consultant, caffeine addict, and Harley Davidson nut. He is the author of The Little Black Book of Leadership and the creator of the video coaching site His unique brand of energetic leadership knowledge has resulted in quotes in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, Forbes, CNN, Investors Business Daily, MSNBC, and hundreds of other outlets.

Featured photo by Daquella manera

Originally published 11/27/12 and updated 11/11/13. 

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