How you can learn to say ‘no’

A common challenge faced by many professionals, especially those in mid-level positions who lead teams and often find themselves overwhelmed by tasks and projects, is the ability to say ‘no’. Mastering the art of saying no, is a skill everyone should learn. Here’s how you can get better at it:

Learning to say no is a skill that can transform your professional life. Start by evaluating each project based on its alignment with your personal values, career goals, and organisational objectives. If a project doesn’t meet these criteria, it’s okay to decline. Here’s a four-stage process for gracefully declining:

  • Express gratitude: Thank whoever is coming to you with the project for thinking of you and explain you’re pleased you’re on their radar for this sort of work.
  • Provide reasons: Explain why you don’t think you can do it – sound regretful but use clear reasons that it will be hard for them to argue with, for example, you’re maxed out on other projects already and you won’t be able to give your best; or you are trying to focus on those projects which are going to allow you to serve your audience / team better.
  • Seek permission: Politely request their permission to say no – don’t tell them you can’t do it, but say, bearing these elements in mind, you would like to be able to say no on this occasion, and is that OK with them?
  • Offer alternatives: If they say it’s okay to turn down the project, great! If they say it’s not, ask them what they would like you to deprioritise to be able to undertake this project 

A note on gender dynamics:

It’s worth mentioning that if you are a woman, you’re more likely to be asked to conduct ‘organisational ‘housework’: work which contributes to the running of the organisation but which does not contribute to your promotion prospects. You should say no to this type of work if you can, particularly if it feels that you are doing more of this sort of work than your male counterparts.

Three resources to help with saying no at work: 

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