How and When to Say No

Download MP3
I don’t know who actually said it first but I first heard it from Derek Sivers (the guy who started CD Baby and then later sold it for like a bazzilion dollars). He wrote in Aug 2009: There is no “yes.” It’s either “HELL YEAH!” or “no.”

Hello desk deterers, cubicle closers, open space offenders, corner office combatants, home den defenders and coffee shop conquerors. My name is Brock Armstrong and I am… not the Workplace Hero. You see, the goal of this podcast is to make you and me and anyone else we can hooked into a Workplace Hero. You can think of me as your dealer… of helpful ideas.

I don’t know who actually said it first but I first heard it from Derek Sivers (the guy who started CD Baby and then later sold it for like a bazzilion dollars). He wrote in Aug 2009: There is no “yes.” It’s either “HELL YEAH!” or “no.”

Use this rule if you’re often over-committed or too scattered.

If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”.

When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!” — then say “no.”

When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!”

Every event you get invited to. Every request to start a new project. If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about it, say “no.”

We’re all busy. We’ve all taken on too much. Saying yes to less is the way out.

I love that. And I try to use it in my life as often as possible but what about at work? Can we apply the same rule there? Aren’t we required to say YES when we are getting paid to basically do what we are told? Turns out, the answer is much more complicated than that.

If you feel weird saying no at work, you are seriously not alone. You may think people will dislike you, think you are entitled or question whether you are a team player but as paradoxical as it may seem, saying no at the right time and place can help your career. Elana Lyn over at spoke to successful women to find out when to say no at work (and why it’s crucial).

“If you aren't getting paid to do something and the task will take away time from accomplishing what you are paid to do, saying no demonstrates your commitment to your role and the value of your time.” — Eileen Carey, CEO of Glassbreakers

“My best tip for saying no is to be straightforward and not dance around the subject. Explain that the task, project or activity doesn’t align with your current priorities and, if the situation changes, you will revisit the topic. Also, sometimes you can suggest an alternative solution. Remember, everyone has to say no at some point, so the person will respect your candor.” — Johanna Lanus, CEO and founder of Work With Balance

“Asking why is a good substitute for saying no because it forces the opposite side to explain and justify her point of view. Asking why allows you to present your side too. While you might not agree with the justification, you will better understand where your boss is coming from.” — Liz Wessel, CEO and cofounder of WayUp

“Part of doing any role well is hearing out any and all opportunities that come your way, such as proposed partnerships, co-marketing or cross-functional projects. At the end of the day, however, you have a limited amount of time and resources, and it's your job to make sure you're spending these resources on the highest-impact endeavors.” — Alexandra Friedman and Jordana Kier, cofounders of LOLA

“You should say no when it is going to set a precedent that you aren't comfortable with or that might be harmful moving forward. It is also important to say no when you know that you won't be able to deliver.” — Amanda Greenberg, CEO and cofounder of Baloonr

Saying no will provide you with the time and energy to focus on the work that will move your career forward. Remember, as Elana Lyn over at says: No is a complete sentence.

As pithy as that thought is, I think it is extremely important to not be flippant or careless with your no. As some of the quotations I just read highlighted, the manner in which you say no is as important as the reason you say it. So, here are some tips to say no with style and respect.

It can be a little intimidating to push back when your boss asks you to do something. So, skip the flat, “ no ” or an awkward, passive aggressive, “Well, umm, see I would, it’s just you’ve assigned me so much work in the past two weeks that I’m busy working on everything else you asked, so I, uhh, don’t think I can.”

Instead, try, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this, but I was planning to spend this week working on X,Y and Z projects.”

This approach works for a couple of reasons. First, it’s flattering that your manager thought of you (after all, you want to be top of mind when new, exciting projects come along!). Second, if your boss knows this new task is more important, it invites her to say, “Let’s push those other projects to the backburner,” and make sure you’re on the same page as far as priorities go.

When saying no to your employees or the people you manage, you want to encourage brainstorming and love when your employees come to you with new ideas. However, sometimes you already have a clear plan in mind, and what you’d really like is for your employees to execute and follow it.

Of course, “No, we’ll be doing it my way,” never put anyone in the running for the Best Boss in the world award.

Instead, you want your message to be that while you appreciate employee input in general, this is a project where it is really important that everyone follow the plan exactly. Remember: You always want to offer a “why” in addition to your “no” so that it doesn’t just sound like you are being an A-hole.

Try this: “Thanks for sharing those suggestions, buddy. For this particular project, we need to follow the directions exactly as they’re outlined if we want to meet our deadline. We’ve gotten approval on this plan, and any changes might send us back to the drawing board. As always, please let me know if something is unclear or if you have any questions.”

When you are saying no to a client you don’t want to come off as patronizing to someone who is by definition your patron. Yes, they hired you because you know what you’re doing but they’re also paying you, unfortunately That means they get a say in the direction of your work.

The first thing you should do is let the client share their thoughts—fully. You may be tempted to cut them off as soon as they start into an idea that you know would be unpopular or infeasible, but if you stop them there, they’ll think you might not get it. As they speak, listen for key concerns they’re mentioning or key issues they think the new approach is solving.

Then, when you respond with your plan, emphasize how you’re addressing the same issues (as opposed to how you’re shutting down their plan). It should go like this, “I hear your concern that you aren’t sold on the proposed new hoojamawhatzit. However, I worry the one you suggested is very similar to the competition, and I know one of your main goals is to stand out in the field of hoojamawhatzits. May I walk you through how we came to this one and a few other hoojamawhatzits variations you may want to consider?”

In general, before you even consider saying no, you need to first affirm for yourself that this is an appropriate time to say it. Your inner voice of doubt will make you feel guilty or wrong but if you access your inner voice of reason, what would it say? Would taking on more work jeopardize the quality of your performance, the goals of the team, or most importantly your well being?

To that end, here are some ideas on how to say ‘no’ from a Globe and Mali article by Eileen Chadnick called “Five ways to say 'no' without jeopardizing your work reputation”:

1. Speak from a voice of responsibility: It is your responsibility to ensure others are aware of the assignments you are already committed to – especially since you get assigned work from different people. Such as, “I’d normally be able to do this but you may not realize I’ve been engaged on project X and it wouldn’t be responsible of me to take this on as well as I’d be unable to invest the attention required…”

2. Engage your boss in prioritizing. Given she is unaware of what is on your plate, engage her in a conversation about prioritizing. For example: “I’m currently working on project X and Y, however, if you feel this new project is more important, are you comfortable with me prioritizing this over the others or prefer we consider other alternatives such as assigning this work to someone else?”

3. If appropriate make another feasible offer. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a flat-out ‘no.’ If there’s a part that you can contribute then make that part of your dialogue. “While I can’t take on the whole assignment given the other work you asked me to do by end of week, I’d be happy to offer some ideas or do part of it or help you find someone else who can help. How does that sound to you?”

4. Acknowledge and show empathy. Before rushing to the ‘no’ part, acknowledge the request appropriately. Such as, “I recognize this is an important assignment and you need it done well. I’d like to take it on but I recognize that given other deadlines I’m dealing with, I am concerned I would not be able to….”

5. Buy time to respond versus reacting: Sometimes we say ‘yes’ because we are put on the spot and we react negatively to the prospect of saying ‘no.’ To avoid agreeing to something on the spot, try to buy a little time to gather your focus and to respond more appropriately. For example, “I would like to talk to you about this but I am on deadline with something this morning. Can I talk to you just a bit later?” Then later, “I’ve thought about this and…” (see the above strategies.)

You might find after some practice, saying ‘no’ is not as unpalatable as you first thought. It may even earn you more respect and trust as others will appreciate your responsible and honest responses. Let’s see if we can create a shift for you because learning to say ‘no’ is an important skill – both for work and life.

So for your homework this week, I want you to practice saying no to a random something at work to help take the sting out of it when you really need it. Remember that scene in the movie Fight Club when Tyler tells all the Space Monkeys to go pick a fight with a total stranger? Well, I feel like this is similar but less painful. Perhaps you can say no to a weekly meeting that you can easily miss without falling behind. Maybe it is going for lunch with the same group of people you always go out with. Or maybe it is something that has been nagging at you for a while. This is the week to finally do it! Say NO and be proud. If you can find more than one thing to say no to, you get to skip next week’s homework. Can you do that? Wait? Did you just say NO to me?! Why I oughta!

Sometimes saying ‘no’ can help manage expectations and your work load, improve your work performance and even relationships. While the consequences of saying ‘yes’ when you are over capacity and really unable to perform at the necessary standard of work can be worse than had you initially been honest and said ‘no.’ We often only think of ourselves when we say ‘no’ and forget that every time we over extend ourselves we rob our friends and family of not only our time but our energy, devotion and our sunny disposition. Remember that next time you feel selfish for wanting to say “no” because you truly don’t feel a “Hell YEAH”.


Workplace Hero is researched, written, narrated, and recorded by me Brock Armstrong in Vancouver Canada. Logo by Ken Cunningham. Music is courtesy my old band, The Irregular Heartbeats.

Now go out there and make this week a Hell YEAH kind of week.

How and When to Say No
Broadcast by