How to Say No and Not Feel Guilty
Why is it so hard to say “no” to someone?
We like being helpful so declining something can feel harsh. But saying “no” is not about being mean or not being a team player, it’s about setting boundaries.
I’m going to share one of the most valuable lessons you’ll ever learn: you can’t control how others feel. If someone is upset because you can’t do something that they want, then that is their problem, not yours. This doesn’t give you a license to be a jerk. There is a middle ground between being selfish and draining yourself for others.
Here are three simple alternative ways of saying “no” without the guilt:
Let’s say your boss or colleague asks you to take on a new task that would add more stress to your workload. Instead of agreeing, pause, and say “Let me think about it.” Oftentimes people will either figure out what they need on their own or they will forget about what they asked for entirely because it probably wasn’t that important anyway.
Don’t feel obligated to give an answer right away. Give yourself time to absorb and process.
I once read about a CEO who rarely responded to the first email she received about a subject. She said that if the matter was really important, the person will send a second email or come find her. Even if you’re not the CEO of a company, you are the boss of your time. That CEO recognized the value of her time so she was selective of how she spent it. Your time is expensive too, no matter your job title or how much you get paid
So your colleague comes back and wants to know if you thought about taking on that task. How do you respond? Like this: “Could you tell me more about what you were thinking? I want to understand it better.”
This will make your colleague feel heard and valued. This also allows you to understand what they’re actually asking for, and it might just require a few minutes of conversation. If the task requires more labor, suppress the instinct to be the first volunteer.
If the task is not the best use of your time, then you are doing a disservice to yourself and your team.
Instead, empower the other person to take on the task. “Wow, it sounds like you’ve really thought this through! Do you want to take the first go at it and come back to me so we can look over it together?” If they respond with “I don’t have time,” then suggest someone else who might be a better fit, or ask them to follow-up with you at a later date.
But if they continue to insist that you are the person to take on this task right now, then it’s time to put on the gorilla suit.
You’re at this point because you’ve tried stalling and delegating, but you’re still being asked to do extra work. Here is what you should say: “I understand that you want me to take on this task, but my current priority is taking up all of my time. If I take on this new task, then my current priority will not meet expectations.”
Let the other person respond. Very rarely someone will say “That work you’re doing doesn’t matter.” If they do say that, then find out why you were tasked with unnecessary work.
People won’t know your boundaries unless you tell them. By being transparent and honest, you and your colleague can realign expectations with a collaborative mindset.
Doing less doesn’t make you less valuable. People who seem to ‘do it all’ are suffering in other parts of their lives. Don’t fall for the illusion.
Did you notice how the word “no” wasn’t used at all in these three techniques? That’s the beauty in it. These techniques might not be as quick as just saying “yes” or “no,” but I truly believe that a few more minutes of conversation are worth the time. Think of it as an investment for your sanity.
Whether you’re learning how to say “no” more often at work or in your personal life, experiment with these three techniques to see what works best for you. I recommend defaulting to the stalling technique and keep the gorilla suit in the closet as a last resort.