How to say no: 15 essential techniques for turning people down gently and effectively

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Struggling with how to say no? We’ve all been there. 

A colleague, a boss or a friend asks you for help. In your head, the answer is clear. The first thing that comes to mind is a firm “no”. Or even an “are you for real?”. Or “really? Again?”. 

But for some reason, a “yes” comes out of your mouth.

And now you’ve got an unplanned task jamming up your calendar – which you don’t really have the ability to complete or just don’t want to do. 

You just signed a virtual pact against your own will. Basically, you just trapped yourself.

Does that sound familiar? 

It does to me because I’ve been there SO many times.

I was a people pleaser. I wanted to be liked and I had ambition. All in all, this was the perfect recipe for burnout. 

But, as this quote from Warren Buffet outlines, it’s really important to be able to draw clear boundaries and push back. 

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” 

With that in mind, I started implementing ways to let people down firmly – without affecting my relationships.

I’ll be sharing these actionable techniques with you today. But first, let’s take a look at why “no” so often needs to come before “yes”.  

Why is saying no so important?

  1. Saying no is how you set your boundaries. By drawing limits you open doors for opportunities that will increase your learning and development. You – and you alone – are responsible for creating and maintaining your boundaries. 
  2. NO is a clarification, and being clear is kind. Clarity is key when collaborating with other people. 
  3. Your opinion and expertise has worth. You’re in a certain job because you can bring value to the business. Speaking up and sharing your opinions and ideas is expected.
  4. No is a very small word. Yet it’s incredibly powerful. So be selfish. Put your needs first. If you prioritise another person over yourself, you’ll find your own productivity will suffer – and resentment will mount. 

When should you say no?

The short answer is: whenever you feel like it. Saying no is an absolute right. Work is all about collaboration, so it’s often in other people’s best interests to be able to hear a clear no. But it’s also your responsibility to clearly state that no.

How to say no without causing problems 

It’s all about attitude. Here are some of the techniques I’ve put together on how to say no – effectively and constructively – throughout the years.

Give yourself time to think 

It takes courage to turn someone down, especially if it’s your boss or a person with influence. But there’s one thing to keep in mind: you don’t owe them an answer right away. 

By default, your reply always tends to be “yes”, right? 

So here’s a life-changing tip. No matter what the question is, answer with “Sounds interesting, but I’m busy with something right now. Can you provide me with more information by email so I can take a look and come back to you?” 

This way, you don’t have to say yes or no right away AND you can answer by email, which lets you assess the request carefully and in your own time.

Always propose an alternative to no

Rather than a flat no, bring some positivity to the discussion by using your problem-solving skills and suggesting an alternative route to take. This will erase any doubts that might exist about your lack of goodwill. At the end of the day, you’ll have said no but will have helped the person out anyway.

Don’t feel you need to give any justification for saying no

A “no” can just be a “no”. You’re a manager. You have responsibilities. If you can’t take on any additional tasks because they’ll impact the quality and deadlines of your current projects, that’s your call. You don’t have to find excuses.

Of course, the person who asked for your help might query why you’re not able to give them a hand – and that’s OK. There’s no need to be defensive as 99% of the time they just want to understand the situation and see if there’s any leeway.

Set boundaries by asking what to prioritise

Sometimes you have the time and will to take on additional work but don’t want to be overwhelmed. So, rather than saying a simple “yes” – and risking being overloaded – ask your boss or colleague which tasks they think you should prioritise. 

Say “I’m happy to do X, Y, and Z but I’ll need three weeks rather than two to do a good job. How would you like me to prioritise this work?”

Now it’s on them to actually choose what’s important. And you’ve just set boundaries in a very constructive way.

Say yes – but be clear about what you’re sacrificing  

You might find yourself in a situation where you can’t say no. Perhaps a colleague is sick and you need to take on extra work or the company is in a complicated situation and requires your support. Being flexible is important in business, after all.

But when you really don’t feel good about the situation? Explain that by taking on this additional task you’ll need to make some kind of private or professional sacrifice. Why? So the other person values your yes. It’s a yes with clear boundaries – and that’s just as important as a clear no.

Be firm when saying no 

If someone can’t accept your outright no, that person is showing you disrespect. Stand firm and don’t feel compelled to give in. You’re not alone and can always report or escalate the situation to your manager. Work isn’t supposed to be a struggle!

Five sentences to use when saying no

I’m not leaving you with just tips on attitude. Here are the five sentences I use the most when saying no. 

  1. I appreciate you asking me, but I’m stretched too thinly right now so I won’t be able to devote enough time to be of any real help to you.
  1. No thank you, but it sounds interesting. Maybe next time.
  1. Thank you so much for thinking of me, but I can’t.
  1. Unfortunately, I have another commitment right now. But I’m hoping you’ll have success with this!
  1. I’m not taking on anything else right now. This resource may be useful for you, though: *insert link*. Best of luck. 

It takes practise but – as usual – let me remind you that now is always a good time to make a start!

I hope you find these tips useful and can use them in your team or company.


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Amélie Beerens


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