The Art Of No: How To Decline Without The Negatives.

by Mark Ellwood

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Saying no has always been problematic.  We work in an always-on culture in which we are expected to rise to new challenges and take on unexpected tasks with flexibility and relish.  Some might say we have also had an unhealthily glamorised relationship with the concept of burnout and the productivity arms race you can get into within some competitive professions.

In simpler terms, everyone wants to be seen as a positive hard worker, not a naysayer.

However, as we enter the second year of this global pandemic, the reality of being overwhelmed is becoming more apparent to more people.  While it is important that we all make the extra effort to help preserve our livelihoods and businesses, that’s not much use if you burnout while trying. So, in this post, we look at when and why to say no and how to do it while preserving your relationships and reputation.


Why saying no matters

As more and more of our working lives go online and become virtual, the ability to manage time and information flow is becoming more important for career progress and success. Being able to say no at the appropriate time matters because:

  • Too much work – to say yes at this point means you may well end up with too much on your plate and you will not be able to do a good job for all the tasks and projects on your list in the time available

  • Unhealthy expectations for you and everyone else – if everyone takes the same ‘yes to everything’ attitude, client/customer servicing levels reach unsustainable levels and all the team end up working 24 hours a day

  • Not good time/resource management – you are not the best person for that task – others are better and/or there will be an uneven distribution of the workload


When to say no

Of course, we are not proposing saying no to everything instead.  You have to become adept at assessing your situation, workload and priorities. The first step in the process is to decide if you can say yes.  Let’s quickly look at the decision process this might involve:

  • Is this the right type of work for you/your team?

  • Does the work fit into an agreed work scope?

  • Will this request fit into your schedule?

  • If not, how important is this request compared to the other tasks you have?

  • If high priority, can another task wait, or can it be delegated to another team member?

  • If lower priority, does someone else in the team have the capacity to take this task on?


Through this decision process, we can identify the reasons the work might need to be rejected – namely:

  • The work is out of scope

  • The work is outside your skillset/abilities

  • You can’t fit it in to the schedule

  • Someone else has more capacity, so you refer the work to them

  • Nobody has capacity, you have to reject the work outright at this time


What the above also demonstrates is how important it is to understand the request that’s being made – the desired outcomes, the expected timelines, the skills needed, etc. Only by knowing this information in detail, can you accurately assess if this request will fit in to your schedule or can be delegated.  If this isn’t clear, you must ask for those details.

Also, if we look at this from a personal (vs team) perspective, then you need to assess how this task or request will contribute to your career progression; something that benefits you greatly will naturally move up on the priority scale.

The hardest task here is to balance personal vs team objectives.


How to say no

The art of saying no is really the art of saying yes and no after carefully considering the options. As Bruce Tulgan wrote in the Harvard Business Review at the end of last year;

A considered no protects you. The right yes allows you to serve others, make a difference, collaborate successfully, and increase your influence. You want to gain a reputation for saying no at the right times for the right reasons and make every single yes really count.”


So, having considered the request carefully and decided no, you should now be able to give a qualified no.

Here are some of the most common qualified nos:


  • The work is out of scope

“Actually, this is outside the scope of the agreement.  Can we discuss this further?” – this could then be discussed as an add-on piece of work (with tweaked agreement) or as a separate billable project.


  • The work is outside your skillset/abilities

“Actually, this is outside of my/our current skillet” – this leaves you open to suggesting they approach someone with the appropriate skillset (maybe you know someone) or suggesting they allow you time to acquire the skills. Not only is this an upskilling opportunity, but it maintains a strong relationship with the other party and makes them aware that you will be able to handle this request in future.


  • You can’t fit it in to the schedule/others have more capacity

This is where, rather than refusing on commitment grounds, you should try and save the opportunity by referring it elsewhere within your team/organisation, postponing it, or leaving it open to you participation when you have more availability.


“This looks great. Unfortunately, I’m already fully committed to other projects at this time…”,

followed by;

“I’d love to take this on at a later time if that’s possible?”


“Let me have a word with X in my team to see what capacity we may have elsewhere for this. I’ll come back to you by the end of tomorrow”


“…but I’d love to be able to play a role in this at some point in the future.”


  • Nobody has capacity, you have to reject the work outright at this time

“This looks great. Unfortunately, we are fully committed to other projects at this time, but I very much hope we can help you with this in the future. Can we update in X weeks and see what the situation is then?” – this leaves the asker with the option to postpone the work or find someone else who can handle it at this stage. Plus, you’ve also arranged an update to see how the project or task has progressed.


  • You simply just don’t know right now if you can take it on and need to discuss with others

“This looks interesting. However, let me first check in with the team on how we might be able to resource this and come back to you by X with a clearer answer”.


Speed is of the essence

Whatever you decide, the key is to give a clear answer as quickly as possible, even if you say you need to seek clarity elsewhere.  This way you are keeping your customer or colleague or whoever is doing the asking informed and clear.

We’ve covered a mix of client and colleague responses here – essentially you can adapt one to the other depending on the circumstances, because with just a few key ingredients, you can master the art of no in no time.