When You Need (or Want) to Say No, Do It Like a Pro

Dec 16, 2022 5 Min Read
"Adopt the mindset that it’s OK to say no."

In this exhausting time, in the thick of holiday urgency and as we round the corner to the third year of “unique circumstances” that require more effort and sacrifice at work, it’s imperative we keep our attention on what’s most important and release ourselves of wasteful work and anything that drains our time and energy.

In our work with clients, we frame this as having a Reductive Mindset in which the process of letting go of the unnecessary becomes more and more automatic and natural. The word “reductive” has other meanings, but here we are talking about math—i.e., “reductive” as the opposite of “additive.” We’re referring to the process of cutting, surrendering, nixing, jettisoning, and kicking to the curb low-value work.

The Fear of No

This stripping away will be your absolute salvation in the gluttonous, additive world of work and in your life outside of work, too. However, to utilize this mindset (and many other areas of creating more white space and time to think), you’ll need to learn to say “No.” That’s hard and even scary.

The fear of no comes from a smart place within you that is hardwired to focus on self-preservation, but the people you admire and want to be like say no all the time. Watch and you’ll see! You need to close that gap.

To get started, anytime you’re doing work you consider low value, wasteful, redundant, not your job, or unnecessary, you should begin to question and then, sometimes, decline those requests or assignments. Your first thought may be, “I’m not in a position to say no to the folks that make requests of me,” and sometimes that might be true. But don’t use that as an excuse to avoid the many places you can say no.

Since the “how” of saying no can be complex, I’ll share some “No Scripts,” but there’s one overriding, central rule to guide you:

When you need to say no, go slow.

The instinct you have to avoid risks doesn’t come in a vacuum; it’s part of being aware of the realities and potential judgments around you. That’s why you need to give yourself enough white space to think and plan. When you need to say no, go slow.  

Before you say no in haste (or say yes immediately when you lack courage), ask for 24 hours to get back to a requester so you can really think the situation through. Pair up with a “No-Buddy” to work through or even rehearse uniquely difficult nos or the nos you want to make to high-stakes people.

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No Scripts

Below are some short scripts that will help you build your repertoire for saying no like a pro. To use them well, you will first need to step into the belief that saying no is not rude or the sign of a lazy or uncommitted worker. In fact, it’s a smart, mature behavior that signals confidence and backbone. From that vantage point, these scripts should help you get the right words into your mouth for any upcoming no-pportunity.

How to say no to an unnecessary meeting:

“I don’t see an agenda, and I’m trying to commit to only attending meetings with a clear purpose I know I will contribute to.”

“I have a full day of back-to-back meetings so I need to decline this one.”

“My colleagues already on this invite will do a great job covering the needs of this meeting, so to avoid duplication of efforts, I’m going to decline.”

“I’m not seeing where my perspective would add unique value to this meeting, so I’m going to decline.”

“As the topics on this agenda seem rather straightforward, I’d ask that you send me a summary of your needs by email instead.”

“Given the number of people on this invite, I assume it will be mostly listening, so I'd like to decline and ask if a recording could be shared instead.”

How to say (some versions of) no to your boss:

“I’m working hard to give the right tasks my full attention, and I see this new project may be less valuable for our goals than some others on my plate. Can we sit together and review what we can prioritise and what we should let go?”

“This task is going to reduce my time available for projects X, Y, and Z. Do you still want me to advance this project now?”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t work late this Friday. I have special plans for my anniversary.”

(When you need to be direct and set a boundary.)

“It does not/will not work for me to . . .”

(Used if an ethical or trust line is being crossed.)

How to say no to projects or assignments from colleagues and other teams:

“I’m happy to do this for you this time, but I can’t do it for you every time.”

“Instead of doing this for you, can I show you how to do it?”

“In light of everything on my plate, this won’t get looked at for a few weeks. Would that timeline work?”

“Unfortunately, my plate is completely full. Can I help you think of another option for getting this done?”

“This task is outside my scope of work. I’m sorry, but I can’t take it on.”

How to say no to friends and family:

“Mother/sister/brother/honey, I’m going to give that one a pass.”

“This sounds like so much fun. I won’t be able to come, but I hope you have a wonderful time.”

“Sweetie, please take the no.”

(To use with children asking for the 43rd time if they can do or have something.)

“It’s hard to turn down this request, but it just won’t work for me.”

(A simple scripting model to sandwich your no with a slice of graciousness on both sides, such as thanking the asker for the intention to include you or saying something uplifting about the event or project.)

Whenever and whomever you’re saying no to or setting a boundary with, keep these simple principles in mind:

Adopt the mindset that it’s OK to say no.

Be safe.

Be smart.

Go slow.

But start to say no. 


This article is also available in Chinese.

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Tags: Hard Talk, Consultant Corner

Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.

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