by Andrew Lawless, John Quinn, Sue Wilcox

Saying ‘no’

The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.

Tony Blair

Do you find it easy to say ‘no’?

Very often, people start wanting to know how to be assertive when they realise that they find it difficult to say no to others, and thus end up overwhelmed, acting always for others and not themselves.

Why we don’t say no

There can be a variety of reasons why it can be difficult to say no to a task.

  • If the person making the request is your line manager, you cannot exactly refuse the request. However, rather than conceding straight away (passive response), why not try an assertive approach? (See below for some suggestions.)
  • If you like to please others, you may feel that no would be an unwelcome response. You may fear that it would have an adverse effect on the relationship.
  • You may be afraid of the aggressive reaction a no might provoke.
  • Perhaps you find it difficult planning out how long things take to do, so you therefore unthinkingly accept work you are unable to deliver.
  • You may think the other person genuinely cannot cope with their workload.
  • You may think that you might not be asked again if you say no.
  • You may imagine you will be thought of as uncooperative.

Moreover, we can make matters worse by agreeing to do something that we don’t really want to do and then

  • We cancel at the last minute
  • We arrive late
  • We harbour resentment
  • We don’t do the work to the highest quality
  • We sulk.

What rights do you have in the situation?

The question is this: are you on a platform of rights to say no? In the case of the colleague asking for your computer password in an earlier section, he is most definitely not on a platform of rights to ask.

If it’s your line manager asking you to do something, then you are not on a platform of rights. You may be able to challenge the request assertively, and establish a workable compromise, but you will need a reasoned argument as to why you cannot achieve their request.

How to say ‘no’

People often find it difficult to say no for the reasons above. However, if you have a genuine reason for saying no and believe in your reason, the next step is to consider your approach.

Base your approach around achieving a win-win result – in other words, a solution that meets the needs of all parties. This might include

  • Being flexible (for example, being willing to work late to meet a deadline)
  • Offering alternatives (for example, suggesting a different way of achieving the required result)
  • Stating both parties’ objectives
  • Doing your homework (for example, knowing your audience and responding in an appropriate manner)
  • Encouraging creativity (for example, brainstorming other options).

Below are some examples of phrases you might use for these approaches.

  • Yes I’d be delighted to help, but the only time I could do that would be...
  • I’d love to do that for you. Could you pick up the children/visit my mother in the hospital/cut my grass for me, otherwise I’ll have no free time at all this week?
  • No, I couldn’t do all that, but if I did this bit, you could do the rest, couldn’t you?
  • If I weren’t so pressed for time...
  • If I had known about this six months ago...
  • If you had asked me sooner, I’d have been delighted, but...
  • I am fully committed at the moment, but will you remember me next time round?
  • I am in such demand at the moment that I could not really do justice to what you need, but my planning gets easier next week/month/year. Is that any use to you?
  • Thank you for asking. I am otherwise engaged then, but have you thought of asking Mr/Mrs...
  • I always feel bad about saying ‘no’. It makes me feel guilty. Please forgive me, but I just have no time for additional commitments that week.
  • I’m very poor at that; you need someone who could do it better.
  • I’m working on a project at the moment. Please ask me another time.

Giving reasons for saying no

Beware about giving reasons for saying no. If it is your line manager, you may need to substantiate your decision and eventually come to a workable compromise. With others, the picture can be very different.

Reasons or excuses become ‘hooks’ for the other person to come back to you to debate your refusal. This is ineffective because it

  • Makes it more difficult to stick to the refusal
  • Wastes valuable time which you could be using to get on with other priorities.

People who are trying to get their foot in the door can be very insistent. Trying to give reasons why their ‘pitch’ was unsuccessful can be very unproductive; it will most probably be better to deal with it through a combination of Three steps and Broken record:

Thanks very much for your time; however, I do know the organisation is very happy with its existing supplier...


Thank you very much for showing us your ideas last week. Unfortunately we have decided to go with another supplier. However, we’ll bear you in mind in the future.

Any attempts by the supplier to try and glean more information can be met with

I understand your frustration; however, the decision has been made. Thanks for your time anyway.