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7 Positive Ways To Say No At Work

It feels good to be the go-to guy or girl: the one that everyone comes to for solutions to their problems. When people smile at you and tell you, “Thank you so much. I just don’t know what I would do without you,” feelings of importance, value, and worth well up inside of you. The immediate verbal affirmation you receive from saying, “Yes,” to every request can even fulfill subconscious aspirations of being popular: I could never be class president, but I can fix every technical challenge people bring to me. At last, I’m a VIP!

But the problem is the default response of, “Sure, I’ll get that to you by tomorrow,” leads to long-term negative consequences for themselves and others, such as:    

  • Handling small requests but putting off important projects
  • Turning in late or low-quality work
  • Doing other people’s work for them instead of properly delegating
  • Working extra hours so they can’t move forward on personal goals
  • Sacrificing sleep, exercise, and time with people they enjoy
  • Developing a reputation for being approachable but not reliable
  • Having people nag them about when they will get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, guilty, frustrated, and resentful

Don’t misunderstand me: Doing your job well, having a willingness to serve, and acting like a team player are all awesome qualities. I’m not advocating slacking or never taking on extra assignments. But when you allow every request to divert your attention from your most important activities of the day, everyone ends up frustrated.

As a starting point, I’ve listed out some examples of quick, respectful responses you can use in situations where it’s common to overcommit. Try saying a few of these out loud (preferably by yourself) and tweak them until the phrasing suits your personality and work culture. It may seem a bit strange or “fake” at first to rehearse. But if you’ve developed a life-long habit of always answering affirmatively, it’s necessary to retrain yourself so that you don’t default to your typical pattern. Here you go:

1) When you receive perpetual last-minute requests:

I would love to help you out, but I already made commitments to other _________ (coworkers, clients, etc.) to complete their projects today. It wouldn’t be fair to them to not follow through on what I said I would do. I will be sure to fit this in as soon as possible. Thanks for your understanding.

2) When people ask you about everything instead of directly contacting the appropriate person:

That’s not my area of expertise, but I would be happy to connect you with someone who could best help you solve this problem.

3) When you’re asked in the hallway or at a meeting for an estimated timeframe for a complex project:

Could you email me the details of that request? Once I receive them, I’ll be able to give you a more definite response on when I can get that done for you.

4) When you’re given an exceptionally short deadline:

I know this project is a high priority for you, and if it’s absolutely necessary for me to turn something in by that date, I can make it happen. But if I could have a few more _________ (days, weeks, etc.), I could really deliver something of higher quality. Would it be possible for me to have a bit more time?

5) When someone starts talking about a problem that you could potentially help them with but you don’t have time to handle and is not your responsibility:

Wow. I can really understand how that would be hard. (Then say nothing more—just nod, smile, and release the problem when you walk away.)

6) When asked to do something optional that you can’t commit to right now:

I appreciate you thinking of me, and I’m honored by the request. But unfortunately, I don’t have the time to give this my best right now. I think you would benefit from finding someone who can devote more time and energy to this project.

7) When someone asks you to do something that your much-less-busy coworker could do:

I would love to help you out, but given my schedule, I wouldn’t be able to get this back to you for a couple of weeks. If you would like to have this turned around sooner, I recommend that you reach out to __________. Does that sound good?


At first, you’ll need to consciously think about using these new phrases. But in time, these type of responses will quite naturally flow out of your mouth in conversation or through your fingers in an email response.

Also, if you’ve developed a reputation for always jumping to meet everyone’s requests, you may have a few people who don’t like your new approach. But by consistently practicing better responses, you’ll end up making more people happy – including yourself.

Meiko SeymourComment