How To Say "No" Like You Mean It At Work (And Everywhere Else, Too)

This may come as some surprise, but I am not very good at saying "no." When asked to do something, whether in my personal life or my professional one, I usually cave... and then end up regretting it. What I have realized, time and again, is that learning how to say "no" effectively is a valuable skill. It’s easy to say "yes"— heck, it feels good to help people — but helping someone at the detriment of your own welfare is just not worth it.

Why is it so very important to learn how to be firm when turning someone down? Studies show that those who are conflict-averse tend to suffer at work, and unfortunately, we can't just ghost our co-workers every time they ask for a favor. If you get a reputation for always answering in the affirmative (or, gasp, as the office doormat), co-workers may come to take advantage of your kind and generous nature.

While helping a little can make you feel good, constantly stopping what you’re doing to aid a co-worker is not only distracting, but exhausting to boot. The constant interruptions at work deplete your mental and emotional energy, and reduce your concentration. A firm yet courteous refusal is the only solution, but saying "no" to someone "in need" is not as easy as it sounds. Research suggests that it may even be more difficult for women to say "no" at work than men, so getting used to saying "no" actually may take some serious practice. If any of this rings true for you, there are some excellent steps that will help you to say “no” like you mean it — at work, and everywhere else, for that matter — and save yourself a whole lot of stress.

Practice Saying "No" In Low-Pressure Situations

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Author, psychotherapist, and psychoanalyst F. Diane Barth stresses in a blog post for Psychology Today that saying "no" isn't something you can learn to do overnight. "Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), suggests practicing saying 'no' in small, unimportant situations, like not buying something at a drugstore," Barth writes. There are a lot of complex emotions and power dynamics at work in these situations, so just like learning how to swim, you need to start splashing around in shallow water before diving into the deep end. So if you're having difficulty turning down people at work when you're already busy, start small by saying "no" to things that don't carry the same weight. If a friend asks you to go to an overpriced brunch spot that burned your eggs last Saturday, that's the perfect place to start. Soon you'll get the hang of it, and it will get easier each time.

Reframe The Way You Think About "No"

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Saying no can be empowering. While nobody wants to be pegged as the office Grinch, learning the art of refusal can actually make you a better leader. Many affluent people from Steve Jobs to Warren Buffet have said that that one little word has been the key to their success in business.

Take A Minute To Assess Before Responding

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When someone asks you to do something, take a moment to breathe and assess, before answering. Is it worth overextending yourself? What are the consequences if you refuse? Will you feel more anxiety or guilt by agreeing to take on what they ask, and what's the trade-off? Your knee-jerk reaction may be to immediately say "yes" and get out of the uncomfortable situation, but a moment of reflection will help you evaluate what's actually at stake. As CEO Tom Friel once said, "We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.'"

Be Honest And Direct

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The way we say "no" can mean a lot. Rather than telling that needy co-worker or friend to "talk to the hand 'cause the face don't want to hear it," you want to decline their request in a polite and gracious manner. Instead, Psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert suggests taking charge with a direct approach. "You might say, 'I'm sorry I can't right now but will let you know when and if I can.' This approach is polite, and puts you in a position of power by changing the dynamic," Alpert writes in INC. Trust that they will respect you and your relationship is strong enough to handle this, and remember, you can always change your mind!

Limit Your Excuses

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One thing about the "I'm sorry I can't right now" move, however: You might want to substitute "don't" for "can't." The idea is not to leave loopholes for people to keep asking, as it will become more difficult to continue to say "no." "I'd love to but..." may seem like you are letting them down easier, but it's really just leaving the door open for further requests. Word choice is everything, points out a post from Mental Floss. Research shows that using the word "don't" instead of "can't" is self-empowering: "Don't" leaves less room for questions, whereas "can't" implies that you might like to do something, but are currently unable to do it. For example, "I don't stay after eight on weeknights" gets the point across better than "I can't stay late tonight."

Just Say It

We all worry that saying "no" may hurt someone's feelings, but it's OK to be a little selfish now and again. Learn to put your needs first, and soon you'll feel relief every time you put your foot down.

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