Career Advice, Watercooler

Are You Afraid to Say No At Work?

Young Asian engineer suffering stress working at construction site

Saying yes to other people’s requests at work might seem like a no-brainer. It ensures your relevance and involvement. It makes you a hero among your colleagues. And it opens you up to all kinds of new adventures and learning experiences.

So is yes always best? Actually, no. This is especially true as you become more successful and no longer need to keep all of your options open; instead, the challenge becomes balancing yeses and noes in a way that allows you to focus on the options you’ve already selected — for yourself and your team.

The hidden dangers of habitual yeses

Saying no feels uncomfortable, which is why many of us learn to say yes reflexively — out of habit — instead of when it’s really a good choice. Over time, these careless, habitual yeses can have some pretty scary outcomes, including:

  • Reduced productivity and potential. Being productive is about much more than constantly doing stuff. It’s about doing stuff that matters. If you say yes to every request, you’re letting others set your agenda — rather than setting it based on what’s truly important to you.
  • A tarnished reputation. Wait a minute. Doesn’t agreeing to do everything people ask of you make you look good? Won’t your colleagues be thankful, and come to view you as indispensable? Isn’t it important to be a team player? Of course. But what if you become so overcommitted you end up making false promises? Deadlines slip, quality suffers and, just like that, your hard-won reputation is downgraded to a single word: unreliable.
  • Burnout. Taking on lots of tasks for lots of people is exhausting — even if it’s all stuff you want to do. You may find yourself skipping meals, scrimping on sleep and foregoing exercise. Before long, you’re physically or mentally incapable of delivering on all of those yeses you’ve racked up.

How to prepare to say no

When and how you say no at work will depend on your situation, the people involved and your personal style. But here are some tips you can try both in preparation for saying it and in the moment when you actually need to say it.

1. Figure out what’s most important (i.e., your top 3-5 priorities).

Saying no is actually a form of saying yes — to yourself and the things that matter most to you. What do you hope to get out of your job? What absolutely must be done in order for your team and company to move forward? What makes you happy? Obviously, these aren’t easy questions. But once you answer them, it sure gets easier to identify requests that could hijack your time and energy.

2. Pre-emptively win others’ support of your priorities.

Sharing what’s important to you with others — and, even better, gaining their support for your choices — will give you a conversation to refer back to in the face of unwanted requests. At the very least, you’ll have a bargaining chip.

For example, the power dynamics may not be in your favor if your manager makes a sudden request that will take time away from the things you feel are most important. But what if you’ve already run those things by your manager and gotten his or her support to pursue them? Then you can remind your manager about your earlier conversation, and mention that taking on the new project will mean scrimping on the priorities you agreed on.

3. Practice saying no in safe environments.

Like everything else, saying no takes practice. Try it out in low-stakes situations, such as when friends suggest doing activities that don’t appeal to you, or when someone tries to sell you something you don’t want. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. You just have to get comfortable with the logistics of politely yet unequivocally turning others down. For more on how to do that, keep reading.

How to actually say it

1. When someone makes a request, count to 10 or buy more time.

Even if you think you know how you want to respond, pause. This will help you short-circuit any purely reflexive tendencies to say yes. In 10 seconds, you can mentally run some quick diagnostics on both the request and your gut reaction:

  • Does the request align with your priorities and schedule? What about the people on your team — how might the request affect them?
  • If you’re tempted to say yes, is it because you see alignment — or simply because you don’t want to say no?
  • If you’re tempted to say no, what might the repercussions be given the other person’s status and/or your current situation?

If the request is too complex to diagnose in 10 seconds, another approach is to buy more time: “Could I get back to you by 3:00?” Then, make sure you do — avoidance is unprofessional.

2. Start by expressing your thanks and/or support.

Master negotiator and author William Ury calls this tactic “the positive no.” It helps defuse the tension and signals your respect for the other person. After all, when someone asks you to do something, it’s rarely because he or she is trying to punish you; it’s usually because the person trusts you and values your competence.

A heartfelt “Thanks for asking” or “It sounds like an important project” may seem like a small thing, but can have a big impact on how your no is received.

3. Use a neutral but definitive tone.

Your tone of voice is critical. So is your conviction level. A weak, apologetic tone will leave too much room for someone to keep pushing; on the other hand, an overly aggressive tone could damage your relationship. Strive for neutral but unwavering. It may also help to maintain eye contact, good posture and open body language (e.g., arms relaxed at your sides).

4. Use neutral but definitive words, such as “don’t” instead of “can’t.”

In a fascinating study on self-motivation, researchers found that people who used the language “I don’t miss workouts” instead of “I can’t miss workouts” were far more successful (i.e., 8 of 10 who said “don’t” met their goal, versus just 1 out of 10 who said “can’t”). It makes sense. “Don’t” signifies a deeply held value — something you’ve consciously chosen and internalized — whereas “can’t” implies that outside forces — things beyond your control, but potentially within the requester’s — are standing in your way.

Consider how much more powerful the second of these two statements is:

“I appreciate the invitation, but I can’t miss my 1-on-1s this afternoon.”

“I appreciate the invitation, but I don’t miss 1-on-1s.”

Other subtle but potent word-choice adjustments you can make center on pronouns. For example, using the pronoun “I” can sometimes come across as selfish, whereas “we” suggests you share the same standards as the requester:

“I have deadlines for other projects.”

“We all have deadlines to meet.”

5. Explain why you’re saying no.

Taking a few minutes to explain your no could help clarify that you’re not rejecting the person — you’re rejecting the request, and for legitimate reasons. It may also open the door to some creative ways to still get the work done (see No. 6 below).

A word of caution: Flimsy or vague excuses probably won’t help much. Get right to the real reason you’re saying no.

Poor:

“We’re just so busy.”

Better:

“The team is already working overtime to complete a major software upgrade by the end of the week. Is there something we could do to help after that — maybe next week?”

6. Propose an alternative.

In some cases, you might not be in a situation to turn the person down completely — but you can always negotiate. This also will change the dynamic of the conversation, because now the requester will be in the awkward position of potentially having to say no to you!

“Thanks for asking, but I spend weekends with my family. Could we schedule something during the work week instead?”

7. Stay calm — especially if the other person doesn’t.

No matter how the other person responds, listen patiently and respectfully. Maintaining control of yourself is the best way to maintain control of the situation. Also, understand that even if you’ve said no in the most courteous and professional way possible, the requester still might be upset or need time to digest your response. This is even more likely if you have a track record of always saying yes, because the person will probably be surprised.

One way to stay calm is to pinch your palm; the sharp sensation will help override your emotional reaction to an angry requester. Remind yourself that sometimes self-respect is more important than making others happy.

 

This article was originally published by Jhana. Reprinted with permission.

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