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5 Ways to Say No Without Making People Hate You

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screaming business woman

One of the reasons many of us are overwhelmed and over-stressed is because we just can’t bring ourselves to say no to people.

Maybe you’re a people-pleaser and don’t like the idea of letting someone down. Maybe you’re trying to impress your boss/mother-in-law/frenemy and don’t want to sound like you can’t handle a certain responsibility. Maybe you were taught that it’s always best to be a team player and extend yourself for others, even if it’s a sacrifice.

You can forget that particular tidbit of etiquette right now.

While you certainly should pitch in and be helpful, successful people—the kind who achieve success without totally burning themselves out in the process—do so by knowing how to say no. You only have so many hours in the day and so much energy. It’s only reasonable that, when faced with multiple pressing obligations, you will have to turn some of them down. Otherwise, you’ll become a frazzled wreck, spread too thin to be of service to anyone (yourself included).

The key is in knowing how to say no politely, but firmly, in a way that doesn’t make you come across as a jerk. Memorize these handy little phrases for the next time you’re ambushed with a plea for your help:

1. “I’m currently working on the Smith report, the Jones report and the Macklemore report. How would you like me to prioritize this new project?”

This particular phrase is especially helpful when dealing with a superior, who you can’t very well “Just Say No” to. Instead, show your willingness to do the work but ask for an executive recommendation on how best to balance your various obligations.

If you’ve already got several projects in your queue, ask your boss which one takes priority so you can focus on that first. If you report to several managers and they’ve given you competing projects, ask them how they’d prefer you resolve the conflict. (One of them is going to have to cede to the other if they want you to give both projects your full attention.)

The trick to this phrase is not to say it huffily or with a “woe is me” attitude. You are not complaining about how overloaded you are and whining for a way out; you are being a responsible employee and making sure you do your job to the best of your ability (while also letting your boss(es) know just how much you have on your plate).

2. “I’m all booked until [insert date here]. I can put this on my list for then if you like.”

This phrase demonstrates a willingness to help—you’re not saying no altogether—while letting the other person know your schedule is firm and you’re sticking to it.

If their project is super, building-on-fire urgent, they’ll have to ask someone else (or maybe not leave things till the last minute next time).

3. “What exactly do you need done?” or “When is the hard deadline for this?”

If you’ve ever worked with…well, anyone else…you know that different people communicate in different ways. (And some people don’t necessarily communicate in the most effective ways.) Just because your boss is a high-strung micromanager, his stopping by your desk every hour to see how things are going doesn’t necessarily mean you’re racing against the clock.

As soon as you’re handed a project, make sure to get clear on exactly what’s expected of you: what steps are involved, how time-intensive will it be, when will you need to turn in the final product? Nebulous action steps or a sense of false urgency can make it hard for you to decide whether you even need to say no in the first place. Once you have a better grasp on the scope of a request, you can decide whether or not you can take it on—and under what terms.

4. “I need to check my calendar and get back to you.”

This can be useful when you find yourself cornered. Some people have a way of weaseling a “yes” out of you through sheer, dogged persistence. You pick up your extension to hear your coworker breathlessly mid-request before you know what’s hit you. Or your mother-in-law has a fantastic knack of countering every excuse you give for why you can’t host the family reunion for 100 relatives this summer.

Rather than trying to avoid a pushy person forever or playing the 20 excuses game (only to ultimately lose), just drop this simple phrase to put an end to the ambush. Saying you need to check your calendar (even if you secretly know your answer will be “no”) gives you a little room to breathe and escape the pressure of the moment. Then, from a safe distance, you can reply back (e-mail is a great way to avoid further attempts at persuasion) by saying, “I’m so sorry, but I’ve looked at my calendar, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it.”

Don’t offer any elaboration or excuses; all they need to know is that you can’t do it.

5. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t.”

Seems deceptively easy, doesn’t it? If only it were that simple, you’d have been using this one for a while now, right?

Not necessarily. This is actually the hardest of the phrases, and best used after you’ve built up your courage with the other ones. The trick to this seemingly way-too-easy defense is in the follow-up: there is no follow-up.

Most people aren’t used to taking a no-frills “no” for an answer. They’ll want to know why you can’t, if there’s any wiggle room, if they can’t convince you to change your mind once you know how special their particular circumstances are.

This is where you need to stand firm—and say as little as possible. You are the rock of Gibraltar. You make excuses to no one. You are (if the image helps) dealing with an overly inquisitive toddler who is trying to test your limits, and you’ll have none of it.

Why can’t you do it? Because you’ve got too much on your plate.

But it’s only a little favor, and you really owe them one… You’re very sorry, but as aforementioned, you can’t. You will owe them one another time.

But whyyyyyy? Because you said so. End of story.

Stated simply, firmly and politely, a simple “no” is unassailable. Repeated several times over, it will make the requester eventually get tired and move on to someone who’s an easier sell.

There is nothing wrong with saying no when you can’t take on something. While it’s important to be a team player and to stretch yourself when needed, you are under no obligation to run yourself into the ground trying to make everyone happy.

As a matter of fact, you owe it to your job, your coworkers, your family and everyone else you come in contact with (including you!) to manage your time smartly and not take on more than you can logically handle. Doing a million things half-assedly is not doing anyone a favor.

So, start practicing those phrases and putting them to use. You can do it!

Kelly Gurnett is Assistant Editor of Brazen Life and runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.