How to Say “No” at Work Without Sounding Rude

Posted by Guthrie-Jensen Consultants

Filipinos are known for their politeness and hospitality. Words like “po” and “opo” don’t even have a direct translation in the English language. However, these positive traits are not without flaws, as this very same attitude can be traced to another Pinoy trait—the reluctance to say no to relatives, friends, and co-workers.

To start: Saying “no” is not, by any means, rude. While you might be uncomfortable with the idea of saying no to people, this is a fundamental skill that you should master if you want to stay productive and avoid drowning in too many tasks. Of course, it should go without saying that there is a proper way to say this so as not to cause any misunderstandings. Think of this post as a guide for that—skill training in how to say no.

Here are some tips on how to decline people in the workplace diplomatically.

1. Saying no to your boss

This is arguably the most delicate instance out of everything in this list. You want to impress your team lead with the amount of work you can handle and show them that you’re on top of things. However, there can be times where you disagree with their strategy, or you have a lot of things to do.

Instead of giving a flat-out no, you could remind your boss about the other tasks you have on your plate. You can also ask them to help you identify which tasks need to be prioritized.

“Thank you for thinking of me for this project! I was planning on working on [project name] this week. How can I rearrange my task list to accommodate your request?”

If you’re conflicted with the proposed strategy, instead of disagreeing or saying it won’t work, you can try something like, “Would it be alright to suggest another idea?” Chances are, they’ll hear you out, and you can propose a more efficient solution.

2. Saying no to your co-worker

Helping your colleague is never a bad idea, but there could be reasons why you’d want to decline: either you feel like you’re pulling too much weight on the task, or again, there’s no time left for you to give. No matter the case, it’s crucial to have a civil response to keep things cool and collaborative at work. After all, there may come a time where it could be you asking for help from that very same officemate.

If it’s something you’re not knowledgeable about, you can say, “I’m sorry [name], but I may not be the best person to ask for this project since this isn’t my area of expertise.”

If you don’t have the time for it, be honest—at some point, they’ve been in the same boat as you. “Unfortunately, I’m so swamped with deadlines right now—would it be alright if we talked about this at a later time?”

3. Saying no to a client or customer

No matter what industry you work in, every company’s general aim is to please clients and exceed their expectations so they will continue doing business with you. However, sometimes, the client can go beyond previously agreed upon deliverables, request too much ad hoc tasks, or go with a directive that won’t necessarily benefit their brand. In these cases, it’s understandable for you to say no.

It helps to say how their directive may be at conflict with their goals, so you need to explain it in a way that shows you’re only after their best interests. Try saying something like, “I hear where you’re coming from and appreciate your input on this project. Would it be alright to review how this aligns with your goals?” This way, you can get your point across, and it’s backed by facts and metrics, as appropriate.

Just remember—at the end of the day, you want you and your client to reach a compromise. If they prefer to push things their way, as long as they’re aware of the repercussions, it should be fine.

4. Saying no to your team

If you’re in a managerial position, you would think that saying no should be next to natural, right? Not really—this can be tricky as well. You want to come across as an approachable manager that your team can run towards. If you keep saying no to them, then you might foster a negative relationship with your employees.

Your team deserves an explanation as to why you’d decline any request, no matter how minor. For instance, if this concerns the company budget, you can say:

“Thanks for that helpful suggestion [name]. However, we might not have the right assets for that at this time. I’ll be sure to note that for the future though. As always, let me know if you have any ideas!”

Make them feel important and heard while establishing that the reason you said no could be out of your hands. In other cases, you may have to be firm yet gentle, understanding, and appreciative of what they contributed to the discussion at the time.

It’s Okay to Say No

The bottom line is, it’s not a crime to say no. That said, it still varies on a case to case basis, as different situations require tact and consideration before carefully formulating your response. The goal here is to maintain positive relations with your colleagues while maximizing your productivity in the office.

This is just one of the topics we discuss in our Communication Assertiveness Seminar, where we teach professionals how to be direct yet civil with their colleagues. You can join workshops like these to better acquaint yourself with various nuances in the workplace and how you can get other work-related messages across as gracefully and politely as possible.

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