10 Steps to Saying “No”

To empower you to feel more confident and comfortable in saying “no,” consider the following 10 steps.

Step 1: Build Your Reputation First

Before you can say “no,” it is important that you establish credibility and trust. Those around you must see you as a team player who always goes the extra mile. Your work ethic, positive attitude, professionalism, and desire to say “yes” needs to be established, recognized, and valued. Your colleagues must learn that you always produce quality work. While saying “no” is empowering, it is essential that you first build a reputation as a reliable and conscientious person. If you come out of the gates saying “no” without first establishing credibility and trust, your reputation is at risk.

Step 2: Set Boundaries

Saying “no” is an enforcement mechanism to protect your priorities and well-being. It is all about setting boundaries…the rules you set to have work/life balance and a rewarding career path. Setting boundaries starts by defining your priorities – personally and professionally. Your boundaries require clarity about your future. Knowing and communicating your priorities will give you confidence. Consider keeping a list of short- and long-term priorities at your desk. It is your responsibility to confirm that you are spending your valuable time on high-impact projects. It is impossible to perform at a high level without clear boundaries.

Step 3: Assess the Request

Resist gut reactions. Drill down. Be inquisitive and fully understand the task. Make a judgment on the likelihood of your success, the return on your time investment, and the fit within your and the organization’s priorities. It’s important to obtain a description of the project, timeline, deadline, parameters, and how success will be measured. You owe it to yourself to fully understand the request before deciding if the opportunity is one that you can give your all. Ask plenty of questions and take notes. Weighing the cost and benefits is a best practice that will pay significant dividends. You will be wise to ask for a reasonable time to consider the request, as you may need time to formulate valid reasons for your answer. 

Step 4: Measure the Impact of saying “No”

Make every effort to assess the impact of saying “no.” Ask yourself questions such as, “Who is the person making this request, and what will be the reaction if I decline?”  “Might my decision have an impact on my reputation and career path?” “If I choose to accept the opportunity, will my heart and soul be in the project?” “Does the opportunity align with my priorities? “Do I have all relevant information and the ability to weigh the pros and cons of my decision?”

Step 5: Consider Why You are Avoiding Saying “No”

Far too often, negative thoughts creep into our minds when a request is made. Examples include letting your team down, how you will be perceived, and career path implications. For that reason, you must ask yourself, “If I believe that a request to take on additional work is not in my best interest, why am I so hesitant to say ‘no’?” Your ability to pinpoint your inability or unwillingness is an essential ingredient in learning to say “no.” Simply put, you must surface your fears and anxieties.

Step 6: Rationale for Your “No”

Assuming that you have thoroughly assessed the request and determined that it is not in your best interest, it is now time to formulate the rationale for your “no.” Use logical reasoning as to why you are refusing the request. Be brief and clear. Keep things simple. For example, you may suggest that taking on the new assignment will undermine your ability to meet the deadline on another key project. Acknowledge your already full work schedule. Be specific. “Thank you for considering me for the project. I was planning on spending the next few weeks on A, B, and C.”  It is easier for you to say “no” when you have a compelling reason that matters. It will also give you more confidence that you are making the right move. A good “no” is all about timing and logic.

Step 7: Stay the Course

Saying “no” with logical reasoning should put the issue to bed. But some people will continue to come at you. They may even lay emotional baggage on you. In these circumstances, it is critical that you recall your boundaries…priorities that support your vision for success. You may wish to say, “I have already given you my answer. I ask that you respect it.” Stand your ground. Be firm and confident!

Step 8: Offer Alternatives

It’s beneficial to develop the ability to say “no” in a constructive and flexible manner. Offer alternative solutions that create a win/win. Compromise by suggesting trading-off tasks to free up space. In the case of a dedicated, seasoned professional, he or she might say, “I am honored that you would consider me as your cardiologist. As I have tentative plans to wrap up my career in a few years, I would like to introduce you to my talented partner, whom I have personally trained. He/she provides outstanding quality of care.”

Step 9: Practice Makes Perfect

Like anything in life, practice makes perfect. After you request time to think over a specific request, rehearse your response…especially if it is a “no.” Be mindful of your language. Consider videotaping yourself so you may study how you package your “no.” Your response must be polished, polite, straightforward, and authentic. Otherwise, you risk coming off as a renegade who cares solely about your world. Although a face-to-face meeting is the most professional way to articulate your position, you may have to express yourself through email or work chat channels. Whether in-person or virtual, be mindful of the tone of your message, as you do not want it to be misinterpreted.  

Step 10: Think Long-Term

Know what you really want. Bring the future into the present. Ask questions such as, “Is this where I want to focus my time and effort at this point of my career? Will this project move me closer to my end goal?

You now know how to say “no” with confidence and conviction. Good luck!

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