How to say “no” at work

the word yes being projected from the word no; the word no being projected form the word yes

This morning’s doodle is about saying no at work and living to tell the tale.     Saying no can be scary or feel selfish.  Saying it too often can earn you a reputation as uncooperative or insubordinate.   Saying no can get you fired.

Saying yes has its pitfalls too:  If you say yes to everything, you’ll soon be saying no because time is finite. Something will fall off the list and it might be your health, your marriage, or your comics collection.  There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many of those are high quality.  You want to say no to the wrong things so you can say yes to the right ones.  And you’d like to keep your job, and enjoy it.   Take heart!  Saying no is easier – and safer – that you think.

Here’s how:

1.  Make a list with 2 parts:  What do you always want to say yes to?  What do you always want to say no to?  Here’s my list:

I am always saying yes to:

  • Doing my best work, the work that only I can do
  • Learning and growth
  • Work that meets my client’s cost-benefit test, ie.,  gives value beyond cost
  • Deeply understanding what my clients need and want
  • Keeping our relationship clean and vibrant


I am always saying no to:

  • Burnout – all varieties
  • Work that doesn’t bring me and my client alive
  • Work that harms my client or their group
  • Work that doesn’t make sense to me
  • Being treated badly, overlooked or undervalued


What’s on your list?  Take the time to write yours down now.   Keeping your list to no more than 10 will keep it lively and force you to eliminate repetition.  Please share it in the comments, if you’re willing.

After you get clear about your yes and your no, it’s time for the next step.

2. Give voice to the yes and the no, in the same sentence.  Yes and no are related, two sides of the same coin.  Here’s an example:  “I want to help you grow membership; I’m not yet seeing how what you propose will accomplish that.”  Too direct for you?  No problem.  Try this:  “I want to help you grow membership.  Help me understand how what you propose will do that.”  Still too direct?  Here’s my final offer:  “I want to help you grow membership.  So far, I’m not seeing how what you propose will get the gains you’re hoping for.  What am I missing?”

Here’s an extended example of using my “no” to bound or limit my yes.

You: “I love what you’re proposing and want to jump right in!  Thank you for the opportunity to do such exciting work.  At this moment, I’m unable to see how all this is possible in the time frame you’ve outlined.  What are your thoughts about that?”

Business partner/client/colleague: “You’re the expert.  You’ll figure it out.”

You: “Thanks for that.  In my experience, jumping into a project of this complexity without determining realistic time-frames leads to last minute decisions that aren’t in the best interested of the business. (pause)  I recommend we prioritize your list so we can hold on to what’s most important.”

3.  Let your intention shout yes, even as your words say no.  You are always saying yes to the relationship with your client, customer, boss or colleague.  If you don’t mean “I want to help you,” then you need to go back to your list and figure out what you aren’t giving voice to.

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