Rogers and Hammerstein put it in a nutshell with their song “I’m just a girl who can’t say No” and alas it is not just the girl that can’t do it; there are an awful lot of the rest of us who can’t do it either.

Why is it that even when we are up to our eyeballs in work, we still feel that we ‘can’t say ‘no’ to more? There is no logical reason for us not to; probably, if the person asking really knew the amount of work we already have they would understand our reason for saying No; so why do we find it so difficult.

We can rationalise the reason for saying no; we can see the amount of work and we can estimate the time frame needed to complete it. We can predict the effort needed to include the extra workload and watch our free time disappear out the door – and even if we start off with the ‘N’ word, we often go through the sequence outlined in the title – and end up by saying ‘Yes’ instead.

What’s your thought process like when someone asks you to do something that you haven’t really got the time or the inclination for? Are these the kind of thoughts that race through your mind when the word ‘No’ hovers on the tongue?

“What if it’s really important and they can’t get anyone else?” or “They’ll think I’m selfish if I refuse.” Then there’s “They’ll never forgive me if I say No, and what if I need their help some day!” And of course the killer one … “They won’t forget it if I refuse, and they won’t like me any more!”

That load of emotional and negative self-talk is enough to make anyone say ‘Yes’!

Plus, those asking for the favour can work to enhance that emotional response, by imposing a sense of guilt if we refuse.

‘This is the third time you have refused to work overtime this month – it won’t look good on your assessment’ …or this oldy but goody …

“I’m really sorry to have to ask but Robert’s mother has fallen over and broken her hip; his wife’s run off with a salesman and his dog’s just thrown up all over the carpet!” ¬ now, go on say ‘NO’ after that one, I dare you!!

However, to be effective at realistically saying ‘No’ we have to make a thoughtful assessment of the situation. This doesn’t need to take three weeks, and we don’t need to form a committee. We just need to make some quick mental calculations.

First – we need to realise Who Holds the Power in this situation. Realistically, the person who holds the power is the one who can influence outcomes which may be in your favour … or not! In a work situation this may be the stark reality; however there is often room for negotiation; after all most bosses are goal focused, and the outcome is not usually personal for them.

So, a brief run down of what you are already working on (stated positively – not whinging please) might make the boss realise that perhaps you are not the right person for this job at this time.

“Now let me see, That briefing for Mr Williams is almost completed for tomorrow’s meeting; then there is the outline of that special project that Giles wanted for the briefing next Monday – that still needs a bit of work. Oh, and then Sally needs those figures for her budget this Friday. I don’t think I would be able to fit your task in and do it effectively.”

As most managers are goal orientated, they would usually see that at the moment you are not the best placed to get this task finished effectively. And if they are blind to that you might suggest someone else who could complete the task “Roger’s just completed the drawings on the Hillman project and might be able to do it”

If they still insist that you complete the task you have two choices, either try and offload some existing work and take their insistence as a compliment; or absolutely refuse and risk the consequences. But if you are working for Scrooge, don’t expect Christmas!

Once we have decided if this is a person of power, we now need to clarify the nature of the request. So often we agree to do something which appears to be simple, quick and easy – only to find when we start that it is anything but!. People can deliberately gloss over the nature of the task ‘You’d be able to knock this over between coffee breaks!’ then you find that what it really needs are detailed figures involving differential calculus!

So make sure that you are absolutely clear on what is required, and the time frame for its completion.

And decide if this is something you can compromise on – perhaps suggest a different time frame. ‘No I am sorry I cannot do that right now, but I could start on it next week”

And finally, if it is absolutely necessary for you to say the ‘NO’ word, do so firmly; maintain your position politely, be assertive not aggressive and do not feel guilty.

Because sad to say, that even when it is truly impossible for us to agree to someone’s request and we have declined gracefully and regretfully – we still feel guilty!!

In which case, take this mantra with you – “When saying ‘Yes’ is not in my best interest, I am entitled to say ‘No’.”

Michele @ Trischel

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