Date posted: 19/02/2020 5 min read

3 tips for saying no

If you want to achieve your goals at work, you need to master one short, powerful word, says executive coach Lisa Stephenson.

In Brief

  • Executive coach Lisa Stephenson shares her tips on how to say no in the workplace.
  • When saying no, share the reasoning behind your decision and keep it simple.
  • Remember that saying no reflects the value of your time and the capacity for healthy relationships.

By Susan Muldowney

1. Keep it simple

When saying ‘no’ to something, share the reasoning behind your decision but keep it simple, advises Lisa Stephenson, executive coach and author of Read Me First, who has trained leaders of ASX-listed companies in how and when to use the two-letter word.

“If you over-complicate your response, you’ll risk diluting your message and your professional brand,” she explains.

Stephenson suggests choosing phrases such as, “That won’t work for me, because I know you need it by Monday and I am completely booked up.”

A simple response should not include an apology, she adds. “Authenticity is important, so don’t say ‘sorry’ when you don’t mean it, just give a valid reason. For example, you could say, ‘I can’t do it adequately within the timeframe that you require’. This way, you show that you respect a person’s own work commitments.”

Lisa Stephenson Picture: Lisa Stephenson.

2. Say ‘no’ to the request, not the person

‘No’ is often associated with rejection and can be a trigger for conflict and confrontation. “The main reason people are offended by a ‘no’ response is that they feel they have not been heard,” says Stephenson. “Acknowledge what has been asked of you. For example, you could say: ‘I understand you’d like me to go to the client presentation at 4pm. That’s not going to be possible, but here’s what else I can do’.

Even though you’re saying ‘no’ to a request, you can still make a person feel valued. Stephenson recommends using phrases such as, “I have to say no to collaborating with you on this, but I really appreciate how committed you are to the project and I think you’re doing a great job.”

3. Value your own time

An ability to say ‘no’ reflects emotional intelligence and a capacity for healthy relationships – qualities vital in a strong leader, says Stephenson. “Your ability to choose what you say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to is a direct reflection of what you value, how self-aware you are, and your ability to navigate relationships and conversations.

“Your ability to choose what you say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to is a direct reflection of what you value…”
Lisa Stephenson

“People who give us clear expectations of what they can and can’t do, and who can navigate their responsibilities in a way that is respectful, effective and demonstrates their priorities, are quite inspirational,” she says. “Especially during times of fast-paced change.”

Take time to understand your values and priorities and review them at the beginning of every week, adds Stephenson. “When you know what is really important for you, you can feel more comfortable about what you can say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to.”

Read more:

How to say ‘no’ at work without making enemies

Read the Harvard Business Review article “How to say ‘no’ at work without making enemies” by Joseph Grenny.

Download from the CA Library

Read Me First: before you write the next chapter in the story of you

Read Me First by Lisa Stephenson has practical strategies to challenge your thinking, reflect and take action.

Download from the CA Library