The Art of Saying No

Posted By on Jul 31, 2010

I did not ASK your opinion Stelzner. Just do it and get the hell out of my office!!” He was spitting mad and kicked at the air, accidentally crashing his toes into the edge of his desk.

So I did two things – 1) I got the hell out of his office; and 2) I did what he asked without hesitation. In retrospect, I wished I would have said no and stood my ground, but it was the end of the quarter and he desperately needed me to bring in some revenue from one of our strategic partners. Although watching him limp around with (likely) broken toes offered some solace, I was young and lacked the courage or experience to know how to handle an irate boss. Like many of you, no one had taught me the art of saying no.

As working adults our daily decisions can be very complex. The implications of how we handle situations can range from taking on more work than we can handle to covering the shortcomings of those around us. In doing so, your more generous colleagues may recognize you as a “team player” who really “pitches in during crunch time” and doesn’t ever “question the assignment“. The manipulative types, however, will zero in and see you as an “easy target” who can “carry the load” while betting on how far they can push before you crack. Yet other more innocuous workmates may simply acknowledge the reality that everyone is doing more with less (and that everyone includes you).

Given today’s precarious world of employment, I’m finding that it’s harder and harder for people to say no. Author Leo Babauta summarized the criticality of this issue:

What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying ‘no’ to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying ‘no’ in the wrong way can jeopardize that.” - Source: Lifehack

So how does one artfully decline without finding their office possessions in an unmarked cardboard box? Clearly it’s important to be judicious in your thought process, but is there a good means of deciding whether no is the right answer? Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens shares her tips on how to make up your mind:

Sleep on it. Maybe you were invited to a big event, but aren’t sure if you should go? Then sleep on it. If you’re feeling unsure about something a good night sleep might do the trick. I know when I’m sleep deprived my decision making skills aren’t stellar. Don’t be rash, be thoughtful.

Go for a walking meditation. I’m a big fan of taking really long walks (between 2 and 3 hours) in the park. I usually bring my camera, a writing pad and my thoughts. I listen to the birds, insects chirping and wind blowing through the trees. Walking clears my mind and helps me focus on the right choice.

Listen to your instinct. Listen to your gut, instincts, 6th sense or whatever you want to call it. The value of instinctive insight has been disregarded by many people. But I think our brain stores and holds onto information we might not be consciously aware of. We have these kinds of feelings and hunches for a reason, but we tend to ignore them when we should be listening.” – Source: Rowdy Kittens

Now that you’ve decided that no is the correct response, how should you handle the situation? Therese Haberman at offers these words of wisdom:

Location, location, location. – “Find a good place to talk to your boss privately, without ringing telephones or unwanted intrusions. Pick a less stressful time of the day, like after hours, when she is not preoccupied with getting the work done.

Be logical, calm and concise. – “Be mindful and sensitive to the fact that she will likely have a knee jerk reaction to your request, so be tactful and diplomatic in your explanation of what you are declining to do and your reasoning.

Choose your words wisely. - “Do not phrase your refusal in the form of a refusal. Instead of saying that you will not do the task, start by stating that you are having difficulty with completing the assignment. This will give her a chance to rethink the situation in a way that does not undermine her effectiveness or authority.

Redirect. - “Offer an alternative solution to how she can get it done (e.g., assigning others or a team to complete it).

Avoid public confrontation. - “Do not make her look bad or question her motives in front of others. This will be a losing situation for both of you.

Know the rules. – “If the task presents a moral dilemma, many employers have a code of ethics that would allow you to refuse to do something, such as lying to a customer, to protect you from reprimand. This is a last resort, as it may damage your relationship with your manager.

Take notes. – “Document the situation, circumstances and any action taken against you for future reference.” – Source:

Good stuff, but now it’s your turn. Please help everyone increase their skills by sharing your advice on how to say no (or you can practice your newfound skills and just say “no” to my request for assitance.) And if you happen to invent a time machine, please go back to find a younger me and share your words of wisdom. It won’t avoid a raging tirade but just might save my pride.


  1. Great commentary Mark, and you are correct; No is an art, I think this can happen outside of work too, at your church, your sport league, your family we all need to say No, and say it artfully more often. Sadly it is a hard thing to do, and by not saying no we find ourselves overwhelmed or disappointed, or sometimes just plain mad that we didn’t.

    Great piece, and good luck on your latest venture. I will watch how HRFlorida goes for VOHR.

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    • Thanks Dave! For years I had a heck of a time turning anything down. It comes a little easier these days but still requires a conscious effort. And thanks for the kind words on the new venture. We’re very excited.

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  2. Having been self-employed for 21 years (to the general acclaim of employees everywhere), I am very jaded on his subject, Mark. My definition of a “team player” is someone willing to do something less well than he knows it should be done because someone more powerful wants it done that way.” Having very strong opinions on how just about everything should be done, I choose to work alone. Good luck with your new ventures.

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    • I agree with “working girl” – good stuff Bill. You know I never asked, but what did you do before you were self-employed? I’ve only known you as a sole proprietor but I assume the jaded baseline comes from somewhere earlier in your career.

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  3. Good, solid advice for most situations. Just out of curiosity, do you think it would have worked on your enraged toe-mutilating boss? Your ignorance may have saved you. :-)

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    • Hmm. Good question. I did stay employed there for some time and I suspect it wouldn’t have helped me one bit to have said “no” at that particular junction. Blissfully ignorant might have been the right outcome after all!

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  4. Excellent advice and commentary Mark.

    The majority of us need a constant reminder that in many cases, it’s absolutely OK to say no. I’ve recently become “Okay” with this attitude and approach and it’s changed my life in more ways than one.

    Thanks for posting this!


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  5. I was mostly laid off or fired in my 20 years after college, Mark, eight times to be precise. My college classmate Thomas Stewart wrote about my odd career when he had the management column in Fortune before becoming editor of the Harvard Business Review.

    Worked on five editorial start-ups, four of which failed — the national average. The first continues to publish today: Backpacker magazine. It gets me treated like a celebrity in National Parks whenever I tell a ranger I started it. Got me a second unreserved night in a private cabin in a sold out Zion Canyon lodge during high season!

    Otherwise, journalism, the last home of the cowboy ethic. Boston Globe, NY Daily News, NY Times. Took a camera crew to within 800 miles of the North Pole for a television documentary, climbed a frozen waterfall in Colorado for the same project.

    I had a swell time until I hit 40 and realized I needed to make some money. Feeling that pinch yourself?

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    • I’ve known you for years but had no idea you helped start Backpacker. I’ll treat you like a celebrity for that alone, Bill. :) I grew up on that magazine and it helped me prep for a lot of treks around the nation. Well done sir (as well as everything else pre-HR). And yes, the pinch of my 40′s is in full squeeze.

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  6. Mark –
    I love Therese’s advice on how to say no.
    What struck me about your story wasn’t so much about saying no – it was about demanding to be treated with respect. Most bullies will back down when you stand up, look them in the eyes, and say “Look, I realize you’re the boss, and it sounds like your mind is made up on how you want it done. So of course I’ll do it that way. However – I will insist that you don’t yell at me like that and treat me with the respect I deserve. OK?”

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    • I think your diagnosis of the situation may be correct but part of my really did want to say no. Unfortunately his foot injury was only temporary. :) Thanks for the comment Dan!

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  7. Great article and comments, Mark. The hardest thing is to catch yourself before you say that automatic “yes”. And for us extroverts, I’d add that talking it out with someone you trust is a good strategy once you’ve caught it and decided to sleep on it. We tend to think out loud, and speaking is a way of getting clarity.

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    • Excellent advice Mary Jo, thank you. What would you suggest for the introverts out there? I know this issue is doubly challenging for many of them.

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  8. Yeah, also it’s a lot of confidence in saying NO. You have to believe the reason for you saying no is the best, and you have to stand fully behind it with full confidence. People will respect that.

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    • Good point James. I think many tend to second guess their own logic or intuition and therefore never stand up for themselves. It’s only later that they play, “I should have said [blank].”

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  9. Great article and great topic! Ah… saying no. In my business, the no’s I generally have to give are to prospective clients who are just not quite a fit for what I do. I’d love to work with everyone, but understanding who is a fit and who isn’t is critical… to any business really. And I agree with Dave Ryan’s comment above; “by not saying no we find ourselves overwhelmed or disappointed, or sometimes just plain mad that we didn’t.” Spot on.

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    • Thanks Chris. I was just talking to someone today about saying no to clients. It’s tough for many to do and especially so if you’re having a tough month or quarter. Thanks for stopping by.

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  10. IMHO Saying “No” is born of Confidence. If you are confident in yourself, your opinion and position saying no is not all that difficult. As they say in the movies, “Man Up”!!

    However no for no’s sake is not optimal – you should have an alternative that you can get behind and support. Negotiation from there and presto, a better answer…

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    • Great points Dennis, thanks. Question – Did your confidence in saying “no” come from training or simply surviving the “no” experience time and time again? I think many struggle to get through that first instance of standing up for what they believe is right.

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  1. Leadership Carnival – Fail Style — Fail Spectacularly! (SM) - [...] Stelzner gives us The Art of Saying No at Inflexion [...]
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