5 tips to say no at work without feeling bad

You may be afraid that turning people down will damage your relationships. However, being able to say no is all about valuing your own time and energy.

The Surdek Team
January 9, 2023
Milan csizmadia r Ca8as1 Kk U0 unsplash

Sometimes as leaders, you want to appear strong and capable and do as much as possible. To keep your bosses happy or your teams happy, you say yes to everything. What happens after that is usually predictable.

You end up having too much on your plate and you no longer have a clear picture of your high priority work. You end up running around trying to extinguish fires all over the place.

One of the main problems is that you are not setting boundaries with your colleagues. It also has to do with how you dance with the system around you. That means the people in your organization are learning that you will always say yes to what is required of you, regardless of the implications.

In the long run though, working in this way means you get less done. With all this work, you can also end up overstretching your team. This can cause your people to struggle with burnout.

In this article, we will give you some ways you can say no to your boss, your coworkers, your teams and even other departments without feeling like you are putting your relationships at risk.

Why do you feel guilty for saying no?

First of all though, let's dig a little deeper into why saying no is so hard for many people. For a lot of us, it is important to get along with others and to be a team player at work.

You want your organization to achieve great things and you want to be seen as a high-performing leader. Sometimes, this can lead to you overextending yourself or your team.

Your can-do attitude may also put you in a situation where work becomes more important than your needs. This is a situation that a lot of people find themselves in.

When you are saying yes to someone, it means that you are saying no to other things without realizing it. You are saying no to doing the best quality work, to feeling energized, or to spending more time on worthwhile activities.

It is normal for other people to expect you to do favours or participate in projects, because they do not live in your head. They simply do not know your workload or your energy levels.

You are not selfish for refusing to do more work or for refusing to do someone a favour. The key is to respect your own boundaries. Remember that it is impossible to please everyone.

Why can't you say no?

You have probably seen those people who are caught up in firestorm after firestorm at work. They do not have time to think because they are too caught up in immediate preoccupations.

When you are in that headspace, you are not even aware that you CAN say no to a request, so you keep agreeing to everything that comes in. These spill into your continuing firestorm.

"But my boss asked me to, so I have to do it," you may say.

You may not know how to say no yet. It is very hard to say no to a figure of authority. You may not even be aware that it is possible. You may wonder: Is it legitimate? Am I allowed?

Most of the time, it is the fear of consequences if you refuse that makes you feel you have to say yes. This is compliance. The interesting thing is that this relationship to authority goes all the way up the chain—between a VP and a director and up to the highest echelons of the hierarchy.

Everyone wants to please the higher ups. You want your boss to have a good opinion of you as an employee. The thing is that if you are coming from a place of compliance, you will not be able to say no.

When should you say no?

Here are a few scenarios that you may want to say no to:

  • Another manager wants to offload an extra assignment that you and your team do not have the bandwidth for
  • You received an invitation to join a work committee or another group that you do not think will benefit from your presence
  • You have a new recurring meeting that is not useful or productive and that will clog up your schedule

When you have said yes to too many people, or that some of those yeses do not feel right, you have to draw the line in the sand. Focusing on your key priorities is what will allow you to excel.

When you have identified the situation that you want to say no to, use the 5 following tips to learn how to say no.

Use these 5 tips to say no more easily

Tip #1: Prepare and visualize

It may not always be the case, but prepare yourself for the conversation if you can. Did another manager book a call ahead of time? If you know that a request is coming, take the time to prepare how you will respond.

Anticipate what the other person's reactions are likely to be and how you will address them. The key is to be ready with some options for how you want to handle the situation.

You can also have a few fallback sentences to help you feel less nervous in the moment. Visualize yourself saying them. You can even rehearse the conversation if you feel that could be helpful.

Tip #2: Give a clear no

Depending on your unique situation, a short and sweet "no" or "no thanks" may not be enough.

However, beating around the bush or appearing aloof will not help. Make sure you are not being too vague about it.

For example, saying "not now, maybe later" and hoping the request will just go away is not realistic. The problem is the statement is too open to interpretation.

Tip #3: Be firm, but honest

Be calm and assertive when denying the request. Use honest phrases that respectfully state you can't do it. Give an explanation but keep it brief.

Let's say another manager wants your team to help with a project this week, but your team is swamped. Your response could look something like this:

"I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this project, but my team and I can't take this on right now. We can put some extra effort next month if you still need the help."

One thing you should avoid is over-apologizing. The other person is the one asking for something from you, so you have nothing to feel sorry for.

Tip #4: Use "I" as much as possible

Advocate for yourself but avoid putting the fault on the other person. You can do this by using the word “I” to center your statements around your thoughts and feelings.

Here is an example: "It hasn't been an easy decision, but I have decided to leave this group. I have learned a lot here, but it's time for me to continue and learn more elsewhere."

Be mindful and try to notice how you are coming across. Is your tone aggressive or accusatory? Are you calling into question their skills or time management?

If the person feels that you are blaming them for the situation, it will only make matters worse.

Tip #5: Don't be afraid to negotiate

Remember that you are having a conversation that flows both ways. The other person has things to say that are important too. Do not forget to listen to them.

Do not come in all guns blazing only to drop your "no" sentences like bombs! Listen to the other person's concerns and see how you can work together to find a win-win.

For example, let's say this person often gives you work. Have them prioritize what they need first on their shopping list. This could look something like this: "If you want me to do this for you for next Friday, what should I prioritize? What can you take off my plate in the meantime?"

You can also propose an alternative solution to what they are asking for. You may find it beneficial here to center the conversation around common goals and how this could benefit the organization.

What if you are pressured into saying yes?

If someone is insisting that you accept their request, keep your cool. Do not cave in simply because they are pressuring you. Politely and calmly listen to them, and assess whether you want to stick with your decision.

If so, one trick is to repeat the same phrase over and over again like a broken record. Usually, the other person will get the hint that you will continue to deny their request whatever they say.

However, do not feel obligated to respond right then and there if someone puts you on the spot. Ask for some time to think about it. Take that time to weigh the pros and cons of the request.

For example, you may know the job has to get done by a deadline, but you do not want to set a precedent that your team will pick up another team's slack.

You may then agree to the request, but propose a counter-offer or a solution that benefits your team as well, like getting an extra perk for your team in exchange for the work.


The best way to tell someone no is with an honest and respectful approach. Remember that by refusing, you are actually prioritizing yourself and what matters to you. Do not simply say yes to everyone because you will feel guilty for refusing.

You can start by preparing a few scenarios and sentences. Make sure you are being clear. Be assertive and honest when explaining your reasons to refuse. Use "I" statements and avoid casting blame. Finally, remember to listen to the other person and work with them to find a solution.

Learning to say no is an important soft skill that you can master. This will come to you more and more naturally over time as you practice. You can also start practicing this with friends, family or anywhere in your life!

What are the things you are saying yes to, but that you should actually be refusing? How could saying no open up powerful things in your life?