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How to say “no” in the office (and not get fired)

Written by Mark Williams | 7 March 2014

Your boss has requested a last minute report rewrite that he hasn't the time to do and your colleague has asked for some help. It’s 5.45pm on a Friday evening and you’ve not left the office on time for the last month. Your partner is starting to forget what you look like (or it feels that way). You are starting to resent the amount of time you’re putting into your job, and as you pull your chair up to your desk a sigh escapes your lips; you wish it didn’t have to be this way.

Can you picture yourself in that situation? Probably yes. We’ve talked to Shelley Fishel, Founder and Director of The IT Training Surgery, to find out the best way to say “no” and not feel guilty for it.

When was the last time you said no?

Saying no is one of the hardest things for anybody to learn. You want to be helpful and a team player. You’d like to say “no” but it just seems if you do you’re letting everyone in the office down. Maybe you are the victim of the busy person syndrome – if you want something done, give it to a busy person as they’ll find the time. The trouble is that this time spent helping others can turn into a major drain of your energy and time, in other words, your performance is affecting your career prospects.

Saying no doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from your colleagues or denying them help. It’s time to set your boundaries so you can perform your own duties better.

The Real Truth about Saying No

Have you thought about what really happens when you always say ‘yes’ to others? Sure, you’re helping them and they reap the benefit, but often it’s at the cost of your own sanity and success. You end up burned out and stressed. When this happens too often, it’s near impossible to be productive. That’s right, when you are always saying “yes” your own performance goes down.

When you’re able to say no to others, this shows that you value your time. It sets a value that others recognise; and when you value your time, others will too.

It’s important to realise that there’s nothing rude or disagreeable about declining a request for help or support. When you say no, you’re simply being honest with your co-workers. How well can you help them if you are pushed for time? You will just end up doing several jobs badly and that isn’t going to benefit anyone.

How to Say No

Be brief, direct and honest. This isn’t a negotiation, so don’t leave it open to debate. Tell your colleagues why you’re unable to help but keep it simple. For example, say that you’re overloaded right at the moment and you wouldn’t be able to give their request the attention it deserves.

If that seems a little too tough for you then why not offer the person a time to talk about it later? Tell them that you can’t do it now but you’d be happy to do it when you’re not so bogged down. This shows your willingness to do it even though it’s not possible at the moment. Offer them a specific time to discuss the matter and schedule it in your diary, but again, be honest. Don’t overextend your future schedule!

Sometimes being vague will work in your favour. Tell your colleague you’ll think about it and get back to them. But remember to only say this if you really will consider helping them. Don’t use an empty promise just to get someone to stop pestering you. Giving a vague time frame is often the easiest way to handle a request when you’re really overwhelmed with work.

Another effective technique is to refer your co-worker to someone else who can help. Tell them, ‘I’m not the best person for this right now, but how about so-and-so?’

All of these suggestions will work if you can’t say no, but, try it and see how it works out. You can always fall back on one of the other scripts if you still struggle with the “n” word.

What If They’re Not Okay With Your Answer?

The above tactics are a piece of cake when the person on the other end says ‘okay’ and shows you understanding and respect for your time. But sometimes, it can get awkward.

If your colleague pressures you to explain more or try to get you to change your mind, what do you say? It takes a little bit of experience, as well as courage to learn how to handle these situations, but just remember that you don’t have to give them every detail of what you’re doing. If you explain, they’ll just use your explanation to try to wheedle your time out of you. Just tell them that you’re too busy at the moment and leave it at that. You don’t owe an explanation unless it’s from your direct boss.

And finally, remember the bad flight analogy. When a plane is in trouble, put on your own oxygen mask before you start to help others. You can’t help anyone if you are gasping for air. When you can breathe, you can assist and support your colleagues in any way you like.

When was the last time you said “no” in the office? We’d love to hear your comments!

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