How to say no to your boss, coworkers, and clients (without looking like a jerk)

“Yup. Sure. I can get that done right away.”

How many times have you heard those words come out of your mouth and then immediately regretted it?

Learning how to say no is one of the most important workplace (and life) skills you can develop. Yet saying that simple, two-letter word takes more than just moving your mouth. Human beings are social creatures. We thrive on reciprocation and hate being seen as confrontational.

Saying no takes commitment to your focus and priorities. Courage and confidence to stand up to people in power (or who give you money). And humility, finesse, and gratitude to make sure you’re turning people down without coming across as a jerk.

What you say *yes* to will shape your day. But what you say *no* to will shape your career. Click To Tweet

No wonder it’s so much easier to just say yes to everything and then “try to figure it all out later.”

We say yes because we don’t want to come across as mean, lazy, or unhelpful. But if we’ve learned anything studying how millions of workers spend their day, it’s that we have less time for meaningful work than we think. (In fact, the average worker only gets around 12.5 hours of focused work time a week!)

So how do we learn how to say no to unreasonable requests, pointless meetings, busy work, and bad clients?

Jump to a section:

How saying “yes” kills your productivity

Let’s assume we all understand the main reason to learn how to say no is so you can say yes to the things that matter. Saying no isn’t about denying yourself and others. It’s about choosing and prioritizing what deserves your limited time.

If we follow this train of logic then it’s probably also safe to assume the first things that come to your mind are the “big ticket” items that are vying for your time. The projects, research, and commitments that take large chunks of your day away.

But while these are definitely choices you should consider deeply, they’re not where most of us over-commit ourselves. Instead, it’s saying yes to the small things that cause us to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and work longer hours than we should.

On a longer timeline, most people have a pretty decent idea how much work they can realistically take on. What’s difficult is understanding what we can get done in a day (psychologists call this the Planning Fallacy).

We’re overoptimistic about how much energy, focus, and attention we have each day. And so we say yes to every “quick catch up” or “this will only take a minute” task that gets tossed on our plate.  

Unfortunately, this is where it all goes wrong.

The true cost of a “Super Quick Meeting”

Let’s look at one of the most vicious time wasters we rarely say no to: the “super quick meeting.” Sure, 5–10 minutes to go over a bug or chat through a problem with a colleague doesn’t seem like a big deal.

But when you look at what you’ve actually committed to, it becomes much more serious.

super quick meeting comic

First off, if you’re doing any sort of work that takes deep focus, you’ll need wind-down and prep time before your meeting.

Then there’s the meeting itself. In a best-case scenario, it only takes the planned 5–10 minutes.

Finally, you need to get back into your focused work zone, which can take up to 30 minutes according to studies.

What was supposed to be just 5–10 minutes in reality could be 5–10x that! By learning how to say no to that super quick meeting, you could potentially save an hour or more of your day.

This isn’t the only example, but it does illustrate the problem we’re trying to address:

It’s not the big tasks that sink your productivity, but the tiny asks that pick it apart.

4 ways how to say no at work with grace and confidence

Like a boss image

There’s no denying it’s uncomfortable to say no.

We’re social creatures that crave approval, and saying no feels like the easiest way to get on someone’s bad side. Not only that, but in a work environment, saying no can feel like you’re sabotaging someone else’s hard work.

But you’re not. And if anything, you’re doing everyone a favor by focusing on your most important work. Your “no” is really a “yes” to doing more meaningful work. But this isn’t always easy to see.

We say yes because we don’t want to come across as mean, lazy, or unhelpful. But if we’ve learned anything studying how millions of workers spend their day, it’s that we have less time for meaningful work than we think. Click To Tweet

Instead, you need to learn to say no to your boss, coworkers, customers, and clients in a way that shows your good intentions, and leaves them feeling good about the outcome.

So let’s look at a few common scenarios where you might want to say no, and how to handle them in the best way possible.

How to say no to a meeting or “busy work”

In order to do deep, focused work, you can’t let your calendar end up looking like swiss cheese.

But saying no to a meeting or quick catch up can be difficult, especially if you’re already in the middle of things. To keep your focused time safe, you can borrow this simple automation hack from RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell:

  1. Add a block for busywork and meetings to your daily or weekly schedule. There’s no way you’re getting through the week without a bit of busywork. So, be realistic and schedule that time for when it makes sense to you. Either set aside an hour block each afternoon, or make one day a week “Admin day.”
  2. Add your availability to Calendly. Using Calendly, you can then set aside the specific blocks of time for when you’re available for quick meetings. In effect, you’re saying no with your calendar, which is easier for most people to understand. Plus, by separating yourself from the conversation, you insulate yourself from the bad decisions of saying “yes” when you shouldn’t.

Robby Calendly

By automating your availability, you’re able to say no to the distraction of a meeting or quick task while letting the other person still feel in control and respected.

And these blocks don’t have to just be wasted time if nothing gets scheduled. Deep Work author Cal Newport suggests giving these “reactive” blocks of time a secondary purpose—like clearing out your inbox.

How to say no to your boss

It’s intimidating to turn your boss down. Especially when they’re the “everything is important” type. However, the goal of any good manager or leader is to help you do your best work. And weighing you down with additional tasks when you’re already swamped doesn’t help.

This might sound crazy, but the easiest way to say no to your boss is to simply explain your priorities and the consequences of taking on additional work.

As New York Times journalist Alan Henry explains from his own previous experience as a manager:

“One of a manager’s fundamental responsibilities is to help workers sift through what’s important to work on now versus what can be worked on later. And for reference, often it isn’t the work with the noisiest sponsors that is the most urgent.”

If your boss is asking you to do something you feel you don’t have the time or resources to do, frame your “no” as a request to re-examine your priorities. Politely explain what you’re currently working on and ask what should take priority.

“Ok. If this is the priority I can start working on it right away. However, that does mean we won’t get X done for another 3 weeks.”

It’s not a flat out no, but the message is the same: You have limited bandwidth, and adding anything new means subtracting something that’s already there.

How to say no to a request from a coworker

There’s a guilt that naturally comes from turning down a coworker who’s asking for help. However, adding the responsibility of working with someone else (and to their deadline) can seriously get in the way of doing meaningful work.

However, there are a few different techniques for saying no you can use here:

Share your workload to get rid of the guilt of taking on more.

This could be through automating your availability like we described above, or sharing your calendar and to-do list with the rest of your team. If you’ve set up a daily schedule with dedicated slots for meaningful work, that’s usually a “good enough” reason for turning down more work.

Rehearse how you’ll turn down your teammate.

According to UC Berkeley sociologist Christine Carter, “when we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with our original intentions.”

So, rehearsing how you’ll say no to your teammate in advance will make you more likely to follow through when the time comes.

Stay firm in your decision.

If your teammate comes back later and asks again, it’s easy to go back on your initial “no.” But you need to remember why you turned them down in the first place.

According to psychologist Dan Gilbert, we’re more likely to be unhappy if we change our mind, so you’ll be doing both yourself and your coworker a favor by staying firm in your decision.

How to say no to a client or customer

How do you say no to the person putting a roof over your head?

Whatever your situation, it can be hard to say no to a client or customer. Especially when you know the consequences might hurt your bottom line. In this scenario, instead of a flat-out no, show them the alternatives.

Author Chris Brogan suggests responding with a clear “Thank you for thinking of me. I’m going to have to pass,” and then following up with a referral to a colleague. While Jocelyn K. Glei, host of the Hurry Slowly podcast suggests being as candid and upfront as possible:

“The upside of everyone being busy—if there is one—is that we’re all in the same boat. No one wants to waste their valuable time.

“Yes, I’m not going to waste my time. But I’m also not going to waste your time by leading you to think I want to participate in something I really have no heart for.”

Finally, it’s important to include an explanation as to why you can’t do what they want you to do. As long as you are tactful, respectful, and firm, the majority of people will understand and move on.

As Help Scout’s Emily Triplett Lentz writes:

“When people understand the ‘why,’ they’re more likely to be forgiving.”

Saying “no” is really saying yes (to the things that matter)

Saying no isn’t being selfish. It’s being smart with the limited time you have each day.

When you say no, it shows that you understand your priorities and what’s important to you. And while it’s not always easy to do, it helps you create a daily schedule filled with meaning and purpose.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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