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  • Writer's pictureAnya Smirnova

How to say "No" at work

I know I need to say "No" to people when it comes to workload. What would be the best way to approach this, without having to say 'sorry I can't work late anymore'? This question came from a new mum preparing for her return to work on a flex schedule. 

All of us struggle with saying "No" at work. We've been conditioned to fear the word "No". It feels like taking a stand or starting a conflict. Well, it seldom is. Instead, "No" is often the first reaction to protect ourselves from the unknown, maintain the status quo, because change is scary. This reminds me negotiations with my parents, when my mum's first response would be "No" but you could see that she is listening to my arguments and her response might change. I find myself using the same tactic with my sons, and after saying "No" I am more open to hearing what they have to say.  

Now, I want you to imagine a situation at work when your boss or client calls and says "Can you do this by tomorrow?" and you want to say "No". Imagine it's a movie and you have the remote control. You can switch the scene to slow motion to really read your thoughts and connect with your feelings at that moment. What is driving that desire to say "No"? I bet it's not idleness. Often you have other work commitments and taking on this new deadline/task will mean making quick choices between putting other things on hold vs compromising their quality, working late vs accumulating tiredness, paying the nanny overtime vs telling a bedtime story.

It's hard to make those choices in a split second, you feel threatened and the intuitive response is a "No" when you see your boss calling at 5pm before you even hear what they have to say.

Now, there are three magic tools I use with my coaching clients. 

First, say "No" silently, in your head. This creates psychological safety and allows you to listen in a constructive and collaborative way.

Second, remember that you and your boss/client are on the same side dealing with a shared project and most likely the other tasks that you have on your plate are for the same project and same people. Discuss with them how the new task affects the deadlines and quality standard for the other tasks on your plate.

Third, and most importantly, know your boundaries, your non-negotiables. This is the first thing I help people understand when we start coaching. I help them discover who they are, what their values are, what matters to them in life. That’s when we start to connect with the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the human in us. This is who I am and this is what I stand for. Without clarity on that, we end up being led by other people or the environment that we are in. This clarity about yourself becomes your anchor and then you are able to create boundaries. 

Happy practising! And if you want to try out coaching with me, reach out for a chat and a taster of what coaching with me feels like.



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