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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Completely Inoffensive Ways to Say "No" at Work (Because "Yes" Isn't Always an Option)

person saying no

Sometimes saying “yes” at work is the way to go. Yes to that new project, yes to more responsibility, and yes to that promotion you’ve been eyeing.

But other times, you need to decline. No, you’re too busy, no you’re not interested, or no, you don’t want to work until all hours of the night. Of course, how you phrase your reply makes a big difference. “No, that idea sucks,” is quite different from, “No, I’d like to take a different approach.”

With that in mind, here are four kinds of people you need to say “no” to at work—and diplomatic ways to do it.

1. To Your Boss

Your supervisor asks if you’re able to take on a little more work, but the thing is—you can’t. You’re up to your ears in other projects and you like eating dinner before 9 PM (at your apartment, not at your desk).

It can be a little intimidating to push back when your boss asks you to do something. Skip the flat, “no” or an awkward, passive aggressive, “Well, umm, see I would, it’s just you’ve assigned me so much work in the past two weeks that I’m busy working on everything else you asked, so I, uhh, don’t think I can.”

Instead, try, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this, but I was planning to spend this week working on [name of other projects].”

This approach works for a couple of reasons. First, it’s flattering that your manager thought of you (after all, you want to be top of mind when new, exciting projects come along!). Second, if your boss knows this new task is more important, it invites him to say, “Let’s push those other projects to the backburner,” and make sure you’re on the same page as far as priorities go.

2. To Your Co-worker

Your co-worker asks you to help her with a pet project that you have very little expertise (or interest) in. Now, if you have time, you might want to consider helping anyhow, because you’ll strengthen your relationship with your colleague and be seen as someone who’s willing to pitch in.

But if you’re set on turning the opportunity down, just be sure to skip a fake excuse about how you would help if only you weren’t so swamped. If you say that, but then take on other new projects, she’ll know you were uninterested (and lied).

Instead, try something closer to the real reason. It looks like this: “I appreciate you asking me, Julie. That sounds like an exciting initiative. Unfortunately, I’m terrible with social media: I have a Twitter page I never use and I can’t even begin to understand Periscope, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much help.”

3. To Your Employees

Yes, you want to encourage brainstorming and love when your employees come to you with new ideas. However, sometimes you already have a clear plan in mind, and what you’d really like is for your employees to execute and follow it.

Of course, “No, we’ll be doing it my way,” never put anyone in the running for boss of the year.

Instead, you want your message to be that while you appreciate employee input in general, this is a project where it’s really important everyone follow the plan exactly. Remember: You always want to offer a “why” in addition to your “no” so that it doesn’t just sound like you’re stubborn.

Try this: “Thanks for sharing those suggestions, George. For this particular project, we need to follow the directions exactly as they’re outlined if we want to meet our deadline. We’ve gotten approval on this plan, and any changes might send us back to the drawing board. As always, please let me know if something is unclear or if you have any questions.”

4. To a Client

OK, this one’s particularly tricky. You don’t want to come off as patronizing to someone who is, well, your patron. Sure, he hired you because you know what you’re doing; but because he’s paying you, he gets a say in the overall direction of your work.

Sometimes you want to respond like the character in the movie who gets to give a monologue reminding the client that she’s brilliant, and that’s why he hired her, and the best thing he can do is let her do her job. And in the movies, the client usually agrees and backs off. However, in real life, I’d discourage throwing all of your papers in the air as you discuss your brilliance, because it doesn’t usually turn out the same way.

Instead, the first thing you should do is let the client share his thoughts—fully. You may be tempted to cut him off as soon as he starts into an idea that you know would be unpopular or infeasible, but if you stop him there, he’ll think you might not get it. As he speaks, listen for key concerns he’s mentioning or key issues he thinks his new approach is solving.

Then, when you respond with your plan, emphasize how you’re addressing the same issues (as opposed to how you’re shutting down his plan). It should go like this, “I hear your concern that you aren’t sold on the proposed new tagline. However, I worry the one you suggested is very similar to the competition, and I know one of your main goals is to stand out. May I walk you through how we came to this one and other contenders you may want to consider?”

No one wants to be known as the person who always declines. Because after a while, people will stop asking you for things (like joining the really cool, exciting, important opportunities). So, instead, aim to be known for the considerate way in which you express yourself—even in tough conversations.