Saying "No"

The challenge of communicating well in the workplace is complex and multi-faceted. One of the classic challenges is when to say more without it being too much, and when to say less without seeming heartless, terse or brusque.

How to Say “No” and Keep Yourself AND the Other Person Motivated

It is always inspiring to receive feedback on what has made a difference to people and for people in their working lives. I met with a client recently, now a good friend, and she spoke to me about one piece of advice that I shared with her that has positively changed her confidence in the workplace (and beyond).

It was this: When you need to say “No”, saying “No” is enough. Offering or making excuses is not necessary.

In nearly all cases, the reason behind our refusal is not of concern to the other person — indeed it is mostly none of their business. Making excuses can sometimes cause us to feel guilty about prioritising our own needs over the other person’s. Moreover, it leaves our decision open to a judgement of validity by the other person, who may feel rejected by the reason you are turning them down.

When we avoid saying “No” we can allow ourselves to feel trapped into assisting the other person, and our resulting self-sacrificing attitude can have demotivating consequences for ourself and for the other person. Our self-talk can chatter away in this vein:  “Here I am AGAIN, helping Jo out, wasting valuable time when I should be on the tennis court. When WILL he learn to do this himself?”

In saying “No” the aim is to balance our assertiveness with a true sense of helpfulness and a great doses of diplomacy.

Times when we do need to explain.

There are times when we do need to explain our reasoning, such as when we are refusing a request from a staff member. In this case, elaborating on our decision will be more motivating than a straight forward “No” and will also help the staff member to understand the decision making framework that is used in the organisation.

Examples of Saying “No” with Balance

Some examples might be:

  • No, I don’t agree with the need for that change, but I would like to understand your viewpoint more clearly. Can we discuss it over coffee?


  • No, at the moment it is not possible for me to take on additional work. However, if this job is a priority, I could transfer the current project to Anne. She is developing well and I could complete a handover in a couple of hours. Would that meet your needs?
  • No, I’m afraid I can’t do that for you right now, but I can show you where to find information that will help you.
  • No, I’m sorry but I don’t have time to talk right now. Could we meet at 4 instead?
  • I have about 5 minutes available right now. If that is not enough, we can talk later, or perhaps Fred can assist.
  • No, it is not possible for me to work in that way. Can we negotiate an alternative that works for both of us?
  • No, that date does not work for me. Will the following week work for you?


As we build your assertiveness by being able to say “No” with comfort and in a mature and balanced way, we take care of your own needs, as well as those of the other person.  Not only can it increase personal confidence, as my friend discovered, it can bring with it a sense of freedom of choice in offering your time, expertise or labour. You may find yourself saying “Yes, I would love to help” (and meaning it) much more than you did before.  This has been an unexpected surprise for my friend, and she finds it pleasurable.  The bonus of learning to say “No”!

In our Team and Leadership Development, we use Harrison Assessments . Click here for a Free Report.

Ganga Harvey is an accredited Harrison Assessments Distributor, Trainer and Consultant with Expert Level Certification.

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