How To Say ‘No’ When They’re Hoping For A ‘Yes’

Advice for those tricky times when you feel like you should say ‘yes’, but don’t really want to.

There’s a legend that often gets repeated at this time of the year, about how the animals for the Chinese Zodiac were chosen. For the unfamiliar, the story goes that the Jade Emperor wanted to select 12 animals to be his guards, so he organised a race for all animals, giving them their ranks according to the positions that they entered the Heavenly Gate in. The quick-witted Rat, realising that he was too small to overcome obstacles like a fast-flowing river, hitched a ride on the obliging Ox—only to jump off at the last minute to cross the finish line first. The poor Ox ended up in second place. 

As we celebrate the Year of the Ox this Lunar New Year, its story also reminds us that we’ve all said yes to things that were ultimately disadvantageous to us, be it personally or professionally. We’ve all experienced it—a colleague’s request for you to take on another task when your plate is already swamped; your friend’s last-minute invitation for dinner and drinks when you’ve just pulled an all-nighter at work. In all these cases, there’s a fear of feeling or looking bad—that your colleagues might think you’re incapable or lazy, and your friend might feel hurt or rejected.

We’re not saying that you should be selfish, but there come times when saying “yes” would harm you more than if you said “no”. In the examples above, deciding to take on more work than you can manage means that the other tasks on your plate might suffer. Meeting your friend even though you’re exhausted would prevent you from getting the rest that you really want. When the drawbacks of agreeing to something far outstrip the drawbacks of disagreeing, it’s time to seriously reconsider. But how do we say “no" when, all along, we’ve been taught to say “yes”? These simple tips might help.

1. Look At Your List

With a completely full plate, it’s near-impossible to add something on without something else falling off. If your boss or colleague has asked if you can take on another task or project, try speaking to them and sharing what you’re working on, and reprioritise or delegate the work if need be. Honesty goes a long way—share that you’re concerned you might not be able to meet the deadlines on your other tasks if you take this on, or that the quality of the other work might suffer. This comes with a bit of experience, of course—as an intern you’re more likely to want to say yes compared to someone who’s been working closely with the team for years. Nonetheless, saying no at the right moments and with good reason sets you up for the many more times you might be put in a similar position. 

2. Happy To Help 

If you’re worried that your colleagues might not approach you for help ever again after you turn them down, try asking if you might be able to help in small ways. This could be as simple as linking them up with someone who might be better suited to support them at this moment, or checking if there might be smaller, more manageable tasks that you might be able to take on. This shows a willingness to pitch in, and empathy for those who need help.

3. Press Pause

Something that might exacerbate the hurt of rejection is a swift, flat-out “no”. To alleviate this, ask for some time to assess the request. This allows you to check if you have the bandwidth and desire to take on the request, and also shows the other party that you’ve carefully considered something which certainly matters to them.

4. Boundaries Are Best

Whether it’s something that’s out-of-contract or simply not something that you want to/need to be working on, being clear of boundaries helps in the decision-making. This applies not only to professional, but personal goals as well—you can’t do everything, even if you wanted to. Assess whether the request aligns with your boundaries and goals, or detracts from them. 

5. Your Manner Matters

It’s instinctual of us to say “sorry” before delivering a message that lets someone down. However, it’s important to not be too apologetic—coming across as tentative or reluctant to say no might lead the other party to think that there’s a chance to turn your “no” into a “yes”. What’s crucial is to be clear, honest, polite, and firm, making sure that your “no” is understood, while ensuring that you don’t make the other person feel bad for asking you for help. Watch your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice if the declining is being done in person, or that your message is straightforward but kind if it’s done over email. At the same time, if it’s truly an opportunity you’re interested in, it’s alright to let the other person know that you would like to explore this next time once you’re able to.

Here’s a final tip: it’s okay to practice saying “no” in private, till you know how you’re going to say it out loud. You might just find that a “no” opens more doors than it closes.

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