Business Etiquette: How to Say "No" at the Office

"No." It's a short word, but often one of the toughest to master. A polite and well-delivered "no" is often the best answer to a request you aren't prepared to deliver upon.

Here's how to do it:
  • Give yourself time to respond. Fight the urge to nervously say "yes!" when everything inside of you is screaming "no!" Ask for time to consider their request and let the person inquiring know when you will get back to them with your answer. Devote careful thought to the request before committing to a project you will not be able to perform with your usual high standard.
  • Know when to reverse the course. If you said "yes" without fully considering the situation, speak up before it's too late. It's fair to say, "I've been thinking about your request. While I originally agreed to help you, I have realized that with the other urgent deadlines on my plate, I can't responsibly give your project my best effort."
  • Offer something when possible. You may not be able to spare multiple days assisting with your colleague's new business proposal, but you might have a few hours or a morning to offer. Perhaps you can help with research or volunteer to edit the final draft.
  • Be truthful. Offer a short explanation about why you can't commit, but never flat out lie. If you do, odds are good you will be caught, which can do far more damage than truthfully declining.
  • Clarify priorities. If your supervisor hands you yet another project with a short deadline, ask her input on which project is most important, then you can comfortably prioritize accordingly. Seek her advice as to what can be put off, and what should be the main focus.
  • Establish boundaries. If a colleague asks you to stay late for a last minute request and you have firm obligations elsewhere, suggest another alternative. Perhaps you can assist by coming in early the next day, or working through lunch. When possible, it's always best to jump in and be a team player, but there will be an occasional prior commitment that cannot be changed or broken.
  • Know when to take one for the team. There will be times when you simply have to accommodate a request that you would rather decline, such as assisting on a big new business proposal or temporarily filling in for an ill employee. But when you are asked to take on excessive workloads that threaten your ability to do your job well in the long term, it's time to discuss the situation with a supervisor.
  • Offer an alternative. It can be overwhelming to be asked to do more when you are already at capacity (especially when you are a people pleaser who doesn't want to disappoint anyone). Keep your game face on and assume your colleague has no idea of your workload. Aim for a positive exchange, even when you have to say, "I'm sorry, I'm not going to be able to help you with the project. I wish I could, but I'm overloaded with other deadlines right now. If you still need help after next Friday, I will be happy to assist."

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