Saying “No” without regret – Step by step

During my work with Auntie clients, one topic is coming up regularly: the need to set clear boundaries. There is the leader, who has difficulties delegating work or the employee, who is constantly agreeing to more overtime, additional work, or unrealistic deadlines. People usually agree or say “yes”, when the option to say “no” seems unavailable to them. Making this easy approach available to anyone who needs a brief but effective solution, will hopefully be helpful to many readers of this blog. 

Reasons to say “yes” when you want to say “no”

Lack of resources

If there is no time and only one expert to solve a problem, then work cannot be delegated. Increasing the staff might solve the problem. However, if the expert has no time to share their knowledge with the new staff, the problem will persist. Sharing the knowledge with colleagues will increase their self-confidence and their skill set. The number of experts, who can take care of sharing their knowledge in the future, increases as well and enables delegation. .

Negative Emotions

New colleagues may suffer from imposter’s syndrome, the fear of an unnoticed mismatch of their skills and their position. As a result, they feel determined to appear worthy of the job and valuable to the team. In order to appear capable and reliable, they avoid rejecting any requests. 

Rejecting a request and experiencing the other’s disappointment, often creates a feeling of guilt especially in empathic employees. In order to avoid more emotional stress, they tend to accept additional work beyond their capacity. 

Lack of experience

There are employees who have never learned to voice their needs or to stand up for themselves. Others, who tried it, felt unheard by either endless discussions or pure ignorance. There is no need to be judgmental, no matter if you are on the sender’s or the receiver’s end. Please focus on the fact that this skill can be learned, trained, and mastered. Once learned you will benefit from setting clear boundaries in all areas of your life. 

How to say “No” without regret in 4 steps

Step 1:  Request time to consider

Start with asking for time to consider your options. When you are busy and colleagues try to drop something on your desk, make sure they understand that leaving it there does not mean, that you will do or prioritize it. Explain, that you will take a look as soon as you have time and that you will get back to them for a definite answer. If they feel that it is super urgent, then they should find immediate support elsewhere. This is a sign of respect to each other’s resources.

Step 2: Analyse the situation

Once you have time to analyse, start by answering the following questions. 

  • What is the request about? 
  • Who made the request? 
  • Am I the right/only person to help?
  • What are my costs (e.g.: resources like time and energy)?
  • What kept me from saying “no” (e.g.: emotions, expectations, avoidance)?

After the analysis you will have a clear picture about the situation. If you decide that you want to say “yes”, you can do that, and it will be a conscious choice. If you feel that you have to reject, you can continue to prepare the answer by continuing to Step 3.

Step 3: Prepare the answer

When you are the “responsible turn-to person”, then this is a very important step. You need to prepare well because your colleagues are not used to being rejected by you. This might be frustrating for them, but this is okay. Everyone is responsible for their own emotions, including self-regulation.

  • Clarify your position (e.g. pro & cons) and your goal (e.g. sticking with “No”).
  • Prepare an alternative offer (e.g. providing information).
  • Prepare to delegate (e.g. recommending a colleague).
  • Offer opportunity to learn and grow (e.g. show them how it works)

When you feel prepared, reach out to meet your colleague or send a message including your answer. 

Step 4: Meet and voice your decision

If you send a simple instant message or an email, please make sure that your answer is helpful. For many people it is easier to accept a rejection when they are directed to the next step. Help them on their way and add value to their quest of finding the answer/solution. They will be less frustrated and will thank you for your help.

If you are planning on meeting the person face to face during a video call or in real life, you need extra preparation. It is easy to fall back into old patterns like getting emotional or questioning your own judgement, when meeting face to face.

  • Stay calm and present
  • Stay in control of the situation
  • Motivate and encourage 
  • “Brainstorm” together for alternatives
  • Stick with your plan to reject

Once you say “no”, this is final. You cannot change your mind at this point anymore. If you do, be aware that you leave room for future discussions.

When you use this approach regularly, you will start to need less time to consider until you are able to react in the moment. This will change how others perceive you. You will not have to explain yourself and your choices as often anymore. Your colleagues will perceive you as a supportive and transparent person, who helps within their own capacity and sets an example. Voicing your needs and giving others the opportunity to hear them and react to them, will increase your self-esteem. This might already help you to reduce your stress level and work more efficiently.

There are several Auntie packages that can support you when you struggle with saying no. For instance Born to LeadOverachieverLost in TransitionStressed Out and Leading Me all cover this topic from different angles.

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