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Rushing to office on a Monday, a senior manager at an information technology firm was mentally jogging through the series of tasks that the day held for her—a women’s forum meeting, performance appraisals, writing an article on the company’s “plant a tree" volunteering event for the corporate communication department, a meeting with a young analyst as part of the mentorship programme, and preparation for the monthly technology forum presentation she had reluctantly swapped with a colleague ahead of her turn. To top it all, she had agreed to take on her friend’s turn to pick up the children from the tennis coaching sessions that evening.

Caught in a whirlwind of activity and struggling to keep pace with the multitude of tasks, people and opportunities competing for her time, she felt drained, stressed and tired.

Sounds familiar? A number of people, caught in the spiral of over-commitment, often stare in the face of exhaustion, dissatisfaction, even failure.

Saying no—why we don’t do it

The singular message drilled into most executives rather early in their careers is to grab every opportunity, even if it is daunting, difficult or seemingly out of reach. Opportunity seldom knocks twice, you are told, and saying no to one is concomitant to losing a chance to build a relationship, learn the longer ropes of the trade, gain visibility or enhance your image of generosity.

“Declining a request is bad"—is a value most people grow up with. In his book How To Fly A Horse: The Secret History Of Creation, Invention, And Discovery, Kevin Ashton says: “We are not taught to say no. We are taught not to say no. No is rude. No is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. No is for drugs and strangers with candy."

Each time you say no, the marketplace gets the message that you are not interested. As a result, you not only run the risk of a declining flow of opportunities, but also convey a somewhat negative impression to people. This gets added to the collage of different impressions that people have gathered through their interactions with you, which, in effect, shapes your image and reputation.

In our minds, by saying no we run the risk of jeopardizing a relationship or tarnishing a friendship. “How will the person react?" “What will she feel?" “What if she says No when I most need it?" “Will I come across as a slacker?" There are many reasons why people hesitate to refuse, but if you’re to be more productive at work, the art of refusal can be a handy tool. Here are some ways to do just that:

No, never, can’t

Ashton says in his book: “Saying no has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined.... The math of time is simple: you have less than you think, and need more than you know." It’s worth remembering that saying no to something is concurrent with saying yes to something else. So find your “yes". Reflect, and gain an understanding of your goals and priorities. A clear vision and coherence around what you deem important will hold you in good stead when dealing with requests that you might be reluctant to acquiesce to.

Sleep over it

Sometimes, it’s best not to say “No" rightaway. Rather than rushing into a response, buy some time and mull over the request at leisure. Weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision. This exercise will not only help you gain clarity on the appropriate response, it will also convey to the other person that her request has been given some serious thought.

Explain why

The inability to say no often emanates from your discomfort with being perceived as unsupportive or unhelpful. But just the realization that your intent is positive, with the limiting factor being your constraints, gives you the courage to speak with honesty and conviction. Explain your circumstance and apologize for not being able to help. This will take the negative sting out of the conversation, and help expel the demons associated with saying no. Remember that you are rejecting the request, not the person.

State what you can do

Without actually using the word no, steer the conversation towards what you can do. Suggest alternatives. For instance, if you are asked to generate a report at short notice, you could suggest turning it in at a later time, or handing an abridged version, which you might have handy, for the moment. This would give you the comfort of having offered something, and the other person the consolation of not going back empty-handed.

Refer to someone else

A management school that I engage with, in the capacity of visiting faculty, once sent me an urgent request for a programme at short notice, as their faculty member had left midway because of a personal exigency. Unable to step in because of prior commitments, I took some time to explore my network, and connected them with a person who was available for the assignment. The outcome was a win-win situation for everyone.

Pre-empt it

Pre-empting a request is a lot easier than refusing it. So, if you sense a task coming your way that you may not be able to comply with, proactively get a word across to the person about your current commitments. For instance, if you are invited to a department meeting to plan for a recruiting event, let your colleagues know rather early in the meeting about the extent to which you would be able to contribute, after briefing your boss in advance. Be assertive, and say it with conviction. People will respect you for it.


Ultimately, practice is the quintessential remedy for inculcating a new skill. Run through it a few times and you will overcome the awkwardness around saying no. Moreover, it would also help in sending out the message that you cannot be taken for granted, and be expected to respond to requests at short notice, especially those emerging from a lack of planning.

Charu Sabnavis is a learning and organizational development facilitator and founder director of Delta Learning.

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