[Coaching Tips] Why and How You Should Say “No” – Even to Your Boss

Sometimes saying “no” is tough, even when there are all sorts of good reasons to do so. But if you are always saying “yes” to things you can’t or won’t be able to do, you’re setting yourself up for failure or dodgy performance downstream.

There are three areas where it makes sense for you to say no; 1) things that you should not do; 2) things that you can’t do;  and 3) things that you prefer not to do.

Things that are illegal, unethical or otherwise culturally inappropriate are frequently the easy “no’s”: “No I can’t because I’d go to jail.”

Things you can’t do are less crisp but as an example, if you don’t know how to do it, doing touch-up plastic surgery on someone is something to duck: “I’ll be glad to work up the numbers but one question first: what’s a spreadsheet?”

Things you prefer not to do are tougher to rebut –  “yes I can do a powerpoint deck for the meeting but I don’t want to do it” – and plays in to some of the strategies listed below.

In particular it helps to say no to the things that aren’t important or essential if your bandwidth is socked with things that are essential or important. As the adage goes, you’ve only got 24 hours in a day: overcommit and something is going to slip.

Here are six ways to say no: figure out which works best, in part by the situation, and in part by who you are and who is doing the asking.

1 – My former colleague Jan Maderious Homan had clear and sharp ideas about what she wanted – and what she didn’t want – to do. Her way of saying no was to express it loudly and firmly enough to be heard down the hall. While this approach may not be for everyone, it worked well for Jan with her peers and her supervisor. Though it may have cost her in terms of people’s interest in working with her, it seemed to accomplish her goals. And as with any of the strategies listed, it passed the ultimate test: it worked often enough.


2 – In contrast to the full frontal attack approach in #1, deferring the answer is another strategy which works. The “no” becomes a “let me get back to you if I can help” response that means you’re off the hook, at least temporarily. This soft answer buys you time, and it’s possible that the asker may never circle back to you, particularly if they found someone else to say yes. You can also combine this approach with other strategies outlined in this post.


3 – The polite and direct no: rather than the deferral or loud no, simply saying no can be effective. There seems to be a North American cultural bias to not to able to state something and then let air space envelope it. Interviewing is such an example: people will fill silence with conversation. But in this case the strategy is to simply “just say no” and to move on.


4 – The polite (or perhaps not-so-polite) no with an explanation. Sometimes the best way is to stake a position: “I’d like to help, but I don’t seeing doing it that way to be helpful.” It accomplishes the goal of signaling help, but that the chosen tactic is the stumbling block.


5 – The “I could do it” but here’s what would fall off the plate answer. Sometimes you don’t have a strong sense of care if you can do something or not, but you know that taking on this straw will break your camel’s back. If it’s your boss making the request, reflecting back the issue to what they’d like to take off your plate – and not get done – is a way to frame your answer so you don’t end up stuck with non-performance.


6 – Last, you can say you’ll help and note that it’s something that you’re likely capable of doing well. Very passive aggressive in approach, but sometimes helpful if you know you’re not going to do such great work but you’ve been asked to tackle something.

Just as it important to know how and when to say no, it’s important to to learn how and when to say yes. And this link, courtesy of Pace Productivity, adds a few more reasons and and thoughts to knowing the difference.


2 thoughts on “[Coaching Tips] Why and How You Should Say “No” – Even to Your Boss

  1. You sound like a ‘tard. At the very least, you should proofread your posts. A seasoned professional should be able to avoid the complete butchering of the English language.

    • The very hasty point – complete with several grammatical errors – elicits a quick response. Thank you fellow San Franciscan for the call-out: next time I’ll know to say “no” when limited time suggests a bumpy product.
      J. Mike

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