The Art Of Saying No
Tamera Loerzel

Conflicting priorities. New initiatives or opportunities. Emergencies or unexpected problems. The list goes on and all are things that can cause you to feel overwhelmed and like you’re going to drop the ball (or several balls). It doesn’t have to be that way, though, if we say a word many of us simply don’t use enough: “no.” In this blog I’ll share some foundational elements that, when in place, will help you say no and some communication strategies to do so.

The reasons you may avoid saying no vary and include:

  • Not wanting to disappoint someone
  • Not feeling it’s your “place” to say no
  • Your “people-pleasing” nature makes “yes” the main word in your vocabulary
  • The request being asked probably does fall under your role or job responsibilities
  • You don’t trust others to do the work with the quality or in the manner that you would complete the task
  • You worry your value will diminish if someone else excels at what you turned away
  • And more!

The challenge is that when you don’t say no, you often end up disappointing someone by dropping balls or turning things around more slowly than expected or you kill yourself getting it all done and create unrealistic expectations that are then perpetuated.  And, when you hold onto work that others could do, you aren’t training and developing other members of your team.  Now, I’m not suggesting you begin to say no to everything that comes your way or not be responsible for the things you own. However, when you are clear about your role and responsibilities, have written and shared goals and communicate your priorities and commitments to your supervisor, team members and other key stakeholders, it becomes easier to say no, or at least no with some options. These structural elements are crucial and need to be in place so that you have agreement about your priorities and deadlines so when new (planned or unexpected) events, tasks, projects, or clients come to you, you can determine where the new requests fit. 

You may not say no because you feel like it falls under your purview. It may, and it may be unrealistic to accomplish, too. Our job as leaders is to communicate any conflicts or potential impacts we see when accepting a request.  You can also negotiate other alternatives or timing, explaining the impact of saying yes to that request.

There are several “magical phrases” you can use that will give you more power and confidence in saying no while being collaborative and solutions-oriented at the same time.  Usually, when we want to say no, it’s not “no period.”  It’s no with some options. Consider these possible phrases the next time you feel like the answer should be no:

  • Yes, I can commit to this but I can’t deliver it until ALTERNATIVE DATE.  Will that work for you?
  • I would really like to commit to this, but before I do, I have to check WHATEVER and I’ll let you know what I can commit to BY WHEN
  • If I commit to this, ANOTHER PRIORITY will need to be delayed and THIS will be the impact
  • If I commit to this, ANOTHER PRIORITY will need to be moved to OTHER PERSON.  Are you okay with that shift?
  • No, I cannot commit to this at this time.  Perhaps we could ask OTHER PERSON if they can take it on?
  •  No, I cannot commit to this at this time.  Is it possible we could defer this until NEXT QUARTER OR OTHER TIMING?

It is also important when saying “yes” to an assignment that you are clear on the expectation by understanding WHAT you are committing to deliver (specifics of deliverable or performance), BY WHENyou need to deliver it and the RESOURCES YOU THINK YOU’LL NEED to do so (hours, dollars, materials, people, etc.).

Saying no becomes easier when you have appropriate organizational elements in place and once you do, you will find it natural to negotiate requests outside your agreed upon priorities. What steps can you take to empower yourself and manage and communicate expectations with others, ultimately producing greater results? Please post ideas for gaining agreement on your role and priorities or communication strategies to manage conflicts when they arise.  We’d love to hear from you!



P.S. If you’d like to explore these ideas more, attend Jennifer Wilson’s session, Managing Scope: The Art of Saying No, at the Association for Accounting Marketing Summit in Las Vegas June 9-12.


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2 Responses
  • Duncan Brodie on May 16, 2013

    Excellent article.

    I think the fear of how others see us is a big factor in people struggling to say no, even when that is the right thing to.

    Sadly people will forget the fact that you felt obliged to say yes, if it all goes wrong or does not work out as well as it could.

  • Tamera Loerzel
    Tamera Loerzel on May 22, 2013

    Thank you for the comment, Duncan, and I concur. They will remember that you kept your word, however, when you say no or negotiate another by-when or new priorities. Managing expectations and then delivering on what you committed builds trust and respect in your relationships. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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