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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Here’s how to master the art of saying ‘no’ in the workplace

Maintaining a professional and positive tone, in your response to a colleague’s request, can strengthen your business relationship and build common ground.

Here’s how to master the art of saying ‘no’ in the workplace
Members of Fast Company Executive Board share their expert insights. [Image: Courtesy of the individual members.]

One of the most difficult skills, for some business leaders and their colleagues, is learning how to say “no.” This is especially true for those who are just starting out in the industry, trying to become well-established in their professions.

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On the other hand, saying “yes” to every single project or event that requires your full engagement and bandwidth, can be just as detrimental to your career path if it doesn’t align with your business priorities and immediate goals. So don’t fall into the trap of being sidetracked. 

No matter where you are on the employment hierarchy at your present company and beyond, experts from Fast Company Executive Board agree that turning down a request—from anyone at any level—is appropriate at times in the workplace, especially if you are trying to move ahead on the projects that currently matter most and maintain a good work-life balance.

1. SET THE BOUNDARIES.

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The only thing more difficult than asking for help is drawing a boundary by saying no. Boundaries are an exceptional tool that communicates to others the ways to respect, support, and effectively challenge us. While setting boundaries is inherently uncomfortable, the weight of saying yes is nearly always so much more to bear. – Katie O’Malley, (en)Courage Coaching

2. OBSERVE COLLEAGUES’ RESPONSES.

You learn to say “no” by seeing other leaders say no effectively, in a “culture” that enables that.

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It’s appropriate and important to say no when: you’re not the right person for the job; you have to deprioritize other work that is truly the priority; or when you have to sacrifice your wellbeing and personal time and relationships. – Pardis Mirmalek, Desanoia AI

3. CONSIDER YOUR OWN TIME AND PRIORITIES.

Learning how to say “no” is one of the most important variables in being a strong leader. You have to value your own time and set priorities. If the request doesn’t fulfill or complement any of the missions at hand, it’s a pass. Being open to all possibilities is a skill. So is saying “no” when appropriate. – Richard RB Botto, Stage 32

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4. FRAME A ‘NO’ AS A (QUALIFYING) ‘YES.’

I’ve found it really useful to frame every “no” as a “yes” instead. I outline what it would take to do what they want and put it back on them to decide. In order for us to do what they’ve suggested, XYZ would need to be in place, or we’d need XYZ resources, or we’d have to deprioritize an alternative project. When presented in that manner, the choice becomes clear and they make the choice themself. – Kevin Namaky, Gurulocity Brand Management Institute

5. LEARN MORE ABOUT THE REQUEST.

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Start and end with “why.” Before you say no, first, make sure you understand “why” the request is being made. Don’t jump to saying “no” until you really understand the situation. Then if you do end up saying no, make sure you explain why you made that decision so others understand your thinking process. – Alex Husted, HELPSY

6. FIND A COMMON GOAL TO ALIGN WITH.

I have found that saying “no” is more about enrolling people in your priorities and focus. For example, in B2B software customers inundate us with feature requests.  But if we have an exciting vision for our product, we can gain their support to focus on that instead. So in some sense, it’s less about saying “no” and more about enrolling and aligning on what the true “yes” priorities are. – Scott Brighton, Aurea

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7. EXPLAIN YOUR ‘NO.’

Saying “no” in a professional manner is an important skill learned over time. And, it’s always important to follow the “no” by the reason why. Examples may be “No, that’s not what we are focused on right now,” or “No, my schedule is totally booked.” Saying “no” is always appropriate if the request is something that may be illegal or stretches ethical boundaries. – Dean Calhoun, Affygility Solutions

8. DELEGATE THE CONVERSATION TO A HIGHER AUTHORITY.

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It’s healthy and appropriate to say no. That said, it’s very hard to do, and I personally struggle with it. My best answer is to learn to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. My cheat code for this is to have great leaders around you and delegate most of these conversations to them. – Ryan Anderson, Filevine

9. STAY POSITIVE.

Never start with a “no.” You may need to get to it, but leading with no means everything after is ignored—either because you haven’t recognized the urgency, or because you’ve killed someone’s enthusiasm. Expectations are the root of all experiences. Try to understand what’s behind the request so you can better determine how to make the “no” into a more positive, “yes, but” response to their need.- Glo Gordon, MATRIXX Software

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10. PUT THE BUSINESS FIRST.

I learned to say “no” because I felt the cost to myself and knew all the things I was saying yes to were not always moving the business forward. The hard truth is that you must be able to say “no” because it is your voice that carries that power. Colleagues will support you but they likely won’t say it for you. It is also far easier to do with clear priorities and knowing what is most important. – Karl Giuseffi, Talent Plus Inc

11. FIND OUT WHY YOU’RE SEEN AS THE RIGHT FIT.

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I’d avoid the word “no” in a situation where I’m being requested. Instead, get curious and ask what is believed to be special about the assignment and why you are seen as the exact right fit. Success is often found in the cracks between roles. If the “ask” is truly egregious in the time it will require, not a stretch opportunity, and you are curious and still see it as a dead end, then ask for a conversation. – Michelle Hayward, Bluedog

12. HAVE AN OPEN AND HONEST DIALOGUE.

The ability to say no is a valuable leadership trait, especially when responding to requests that are unreasonable, misaligned with business strategy, or if a request reflects an inherent personal agenda or bias. The party making the request is more likely to accept your “no” and buy into your reasoning if you have an open and honest dialogue about it and it leads to more successful outcomes. – Sameer Penakalapati, CEIPAL corp.

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13. STAND BY YOUR ORGANIZATION’S  VALUES.

Our values set our boundaries. We make it clear early and often that family comes before work, all people should be treated with respect, and our workplace must be equitable and inclusive. We live those values by saying “no” to clients who do not treat us fairly and “no” to practices that do not allow employees to thrive, individually, or collectively. – Misty Dykema, Simantel

14. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR ROLE AND RESPONSIBILITIES.

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Many people in leadership positions struggle with saying “no” when they are asked for something that is not within their job description. This can lead to burnout or even a mental breakdown. The key is being clear about your role and responsibilities before accepting a request. It’s important to understand what you are willing to do and what you’re not willing to do so that you can set boundaries. – Kristin Marquet, Marquet Media, LLC

15. DON’T GIVE A PUSHY RESPONSE.

The word “no” is something that should be heard in a growing and innovative industry. However, a “no” should always be accompanied by some form of explanation if it is given to an employee. When working with someone in a higher position I would advise against making a decision as a form of no. You are responsible for your employees to trust your judgment but you also need to trust the people above you while not being too pushy. – Tyler Angelos, Angelus Brand

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16. BALANCE THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS.

Unless a “no” involves a disagreement on principle, business strategy, ask overreach, or priority of objectives, it should not occur. If the ask is reasonable and the reasoning sound, professionals who are paid to get a job done should have a good explanation as to why a “no” might occur when a colleague has a request. – Tyrone Foster, InvestNet, LLC

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