Picture this: John’s colleague copies him into an email thread volunteering him to take on a new project, without checking with him first. John knows he’s already struggling to meet his existing deadlines. When John shares his concern in-person with the colleague, they are quick to brush him aside with a flippant comment: “We’ll just have to make it work”.  

John isn’t alone in struggling with his predicament. Many of us struggle to confidently say “No” in the workplace, or at home, and hold our boundaries. We might be worried about how others will react, whether our competence will be second-guessed, or whether it will damage our relationships. These are valid worries because the two-letter word “No” can, at times, be met with resistance or cause tension. However, we often underestimate the other person’s ability to deal with our refusal. We can also take steps to say “No” skilfully and respectfully so that it gets easier over time.

The art of saying “No” can be especially important when life feels hectic, like in the lead-up to the holiday season. Taking on more than we can manage – whether that’s projects at work, social commitments, or holiday planning – means we run the risk of becoming resentful towards others, feeling disappointed in ourselves, and elevating our own stress levels (therefore hurting our overall wellbeing).

Fortunately, like other social skills, there are some things we can do to say “No” more effectively:

  1. First, ensure that your tone of voice and body language match the message you are trying to get across and convey confidence (even if you don’t feel particularly confident). For example, face the person you are speaking to, make eye contact, and ensure they can hear you clearly. This can be done with the same politeness and warmth you use in other interactions around the workplace. 
  1. Second, keep it brief. We often preface saying “No” with an apology or give waffly excuses. You don’t have to apologise or go into excessive detail. That being said, offering a brief and authentic reason (e.g., “I can’t help you this afternoon because I have my own deadline coming up”) might mean your response is more easily accepted. If you genuinely want to assist, you might propose an alternative day or time to meet their request or negotiate a small part of the work you can help with. 
  1. Finally, be prepared for pushback. If the other person is persistent, you can use the “broken record technique” and restate your brief response as often as needed. To say “No” effectively, you need to be prepared to hold your boundary.

If you’ve read this far and you’re still reluctant to try some of these suggestions, then it might be worthwhile exploring some of your beliefs about saying “No”. For example, we may believe that being assertive is the same as being aggressive (it’s not – the communication styles have very different characteristics), or that other people won’t like me if I say “No”. These beliefs make it very difficult to hold our boundaries, meaning that we may need to start with disentangling them first.