The art of saying no at workplace

In the best selling book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook encouraged women to step up, stand on their ground and have the courage to push back when it is necessary. I can understand why she said that because it is not uncommon to read about women always being too willing to say yes. Would you like to organise catering for the meeting? Yes, sure! Could you please compile an xx report and send it to me? Certainly. Do you want to be involved in the discussion about xx? I’d love to! While the main audience of Lean In is working women, I believe there are also men who struggle to say no and Sheryl Sandberg’s advice applies to them too.

So the question is how do we say no, how do we decline nicely as to not burn bridges. While I am no expert, I’ve learned a lot in my career to be more confident and to have the courage to say no and I’d like to share with you some tips.

Understand why you don’t like saying no
Everyone is different and we have different reasons for not wanting to say no. Some of the common reasons are:
– Not wanting to appear negative
– Not wanting to upset or offend the other person
– Worry about possible consequences, eg: missed opportunities
– Desire to please everyone

Once we understand our own reasons behind not wanting to say no, we can make a rational decision. For example, if it was because of our inner desire to please everyone and keep everyone in harmony, we need to think about ourselves first and whether we really want to say yes or we are just saying yes without thinking. Besides, we can’t always please everyone, it is simply impossible. However, we can always do the right thing and sometimes the right thing to do is to say no.

How to say no positively
Saying no doesn’t have to be negative and the trick is how the message is being delivered. Here are some of the most effective ways to say no positively, based on my experience.

1. Give a reason
Sometimes, you can’t possibly say yes even though you wish you could due to circumstances such as prior engagements, current commitments and so on. In these cases, give a reason and you may not even need to use the word no. For example: I’d like to come to the meeting but I’ve got an important report to finish by tomorrow.

2. Decline respectfully and don’t make it personal
If you are saying no to an offer because you don’t like it, be frank and don’t try to sugar-coat it. I say this because sometimes, people try to give a half-hearted compliment before saying no. But the problem with this approach is that insincerity shines through. It’s better to be honest and respectful and the other party will appreciate it. In these situations, a simple no thanks will do.

3. Give an opportunity in the future
If you can’t accept an offer at this time but you see an opportunity in the future, don’t be hesitant to say so. For example: I am not able to join you at this time, but how about you email me in a week time and we can regroup?

4. Offer a solution/an alternative
Saying no doesn’t have to mean outright saying no. For example, if I was asked to build a website for a friend and I did not have time to do it, rather than just saying ‘sorry I can’t’, I’d tell them that I’d post the question on my social media or ask the other person to look at hiring a freelancer.

5. Just say it
Saying no doesn’t have to be a bad thing. For one, it means you have clarity and you know when something doesn’t meet your requirement. Secondly, rather than saying yes all the time and not delivering, saying no from time to time indirectly means your ‘yes’ have more value. And last but not least, saying no upfront eliminates unrealistic expectation, avoids giving false hope and leading the other person on.