How to say ‘No’: Give a more positive negative

Even Superwoman says ‘no’ sometimes!

Whether you are an employee, a manager, a business owner or an employer, I can guarantee this isn’t your only role in life. You may also be a friend, daughter, sister, wife/partner, mother, auntie, volunteer, student, pet owner, committee/group member or any combination of the above.

And with all those roles come lots of responsibilities!

Not to mention all those requests and demands on your time, efforts and attention. We try and be Superwoman, taking on anything that comes our way. But the roles that you definitely don’t want to have, are those of doormat, dogsbody or super-stressed-out-can’t-cope-with-it-any-more-about-to-collapse-or- kill-someone-woman.

Sometimes we just have to say ‘No’ to those requests and demands – but how can we do that without causing more problems?

First of all, let’s look at why people are asking you to do so much stuff in the first place. Is it because they trust you to be a competent, reliable person who will do a good job, in good time, and not mess it up? That can be very flattering, and we don’t want to let people down, or lose the great reputation we clearly have.

Victim of success

But the danger is that we can then become a victim of our own success. As an HR and training consultant, I am frequently asked to be a speaker at events, write articles for publications and websites, get involved in community or charity events, rewrite a friend’s CV, do radio interviews and even film video clips for podcasts etc. Which is all great – I enjoy the activities and I have HR kudos coming out of my ears. What I don’t have so much of is paid work, because people want all these things for nought pence (and a free lunch if I’m lucky.) And sadly, HR street cred doesn’t pay the mortgage. So although I’m always rushed off my feet, I won’t be buying a Mulberry handbag anytime soon. But turning down such requests always makes me feel like the Wicked Witch of North London, not to mention the worry that other people will think that too.

Don’t be a doormat

By never saying “No”, the danger is that people stop asking us because they know we’re fab, but instead ask us because they know that we will say yes. That’s not flattering at all – that just means we have crossed the line into doormat territory, and we let people take advantage of our willing nature. As a result, we not only get overloaded, we also then fail to devote enough time to ourselves and our own goals and priorities, often undervaluing ourselves and our own concerns.

It’s okay to say no…

There are times when it is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to say “No”. For example:

  • when time-scale is unreasonable
  • when the work is not yours to do
  • when the task has a low priority compared to other stuff on your to-do list
  • when you lack the knowledge/skills/resources to do it properly
  • when you feel under pressure
  • when the task involves your friend’s hyperactive, destructive 4-year old and/or their hyperactive, destructive dog
  • when you’re invited to a Cheryl Cole live performance!

…so why don’t we?

But it’s still so hard to say “no”– why?? Usually we are afraid of the consequences. What if the person asking is more senior (boss/mother-in-law)? What if they react badly? Kick off? Make our lives a misery? No-one wants the conflict, so we often agree to unreasonable requests just for a quiet life.

The positive negative

Admittedly, if someone asks you to do something and your response is “No, because I’m too busy/because I don’t feel like it/because I have better things to do/because I hate you/because I said so/just BECAUSE, okay?!’ then you can expect a bad reaction and resulting conflict, loss of reputation, and general misery all round.

But, the good news is that there are easy assertiveness  techniques to follow and tools to use, that will turn any “No” into a more positive response.

Simply follow these 3 easy steps…

  1. Start with a sensitive, empathetic statement that shows you understand the other person’s position or situation.
  2. Then give a valid reason (not an excuse) for the ‘no’.
    Don’t make up something lame that could potentially be challenged – just be as honest as you can (although within boundaries – see above paragraph about how not to say No!)
  3. Finish by offering or exploring some alternatives, so you’re clearly showing that you’re willing to help, but only on terms that are reasonable to you.

So, for example, if someone asks you to undertake a task at short notice, try something along the lines of “I understand the rush but these forms I’m doing are top priority for the next 2 hours. Sue may be free at 4pm, and I’ll be free tomorrow morning.” Or “I realise it’s important but my diary is full at the moment. I could look at rescheduling some meetings next week if you can let me know how long it will take.”

Another example – if someone asks you for a lift but it’s not convenient for you as you’re late already and it will take you out of your way, try “I’d like to help but I’m about 20 minutes late so I can’t take you home. If it helps I can drop you off at the bus stop/station.”

Lose the passive

Avoid being passive or people will see a chink in your armour! You don’t need to respond to every question or justify yourself, or even apologise.

Stand your ground, stay calm, and repeat yourself if you need to – the ‘broken record’ technique can be very effective! Don’t make it a personal rejection though, as  you want people to feel they can still ask you another time.

Eventually people will realise that, while you’ll do your best when you can, you’re not to be taken advantage of – so hopefully they’ll only ask when it’s really important, and you’ll only say yes when you know you can!


Tara Daynes

Tara Daynes FCIPD, MSSP, is a fully qualified freelance HR and training consultant with 16 years’ post-graduate experience. She is a qualified Employment Law Paralegal & a registered Investors In People adviser/assessor. Specialising in employment law & business training, Tara helps organisations improve their business performance through how they manage & develop their staff. This includes start-up HR functions for SMEs, writing people management policies and procedures and staff handbooks, and providing training for line management and staff on key issues. Email or visit for more information. Connect with Tara at Linked In, Tweet her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook

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