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How to say “no” like you really mean it!

How do we learn to say a healthy "no", when we know that it is the right answer, without compromising our career?


This is the third in a series of blogposts based on my recent videos for Psychologies Magazine, looking at “How to say ‘no’ at work and still succeed”.

So far we have looked at some of external and internal factors that can make “yes” our default position when we are asked to do something – including childhood experiences, and thinking that you have something to prove.

We have also considered the ‘checks and balances’ that might work for you, and using these to make sure that you manage your responses better, so that you only say “yes” when it is the right answer.

In this post we think about ways we can say a healthy “no” in a way that will actually help us to succeed at work. Becoming known as the person who always says ‘no’ means that after a while people may simply stop asking you to do things and you may miss out on the really positive, important opportunities that will help you succeed at work. It’s far better to be the person who is known for the clear, considerate and helpful way you express yourself – even in tough conversations.


So what do you do when it is a client or a colleague who asks you to do something, and you’ve been through your internal checks and balances, and know that ‘no’ is right answer? How do you bite the hand that literally feeds you?

If you shut people down without listening fully to the request or the reasoning behind it, you definitely risk offence. So hear them out. Practice listening without urgency, resisting the urge to interrupt or get your own point of view across until they have finished outlining their position. 

If, having listened, “no” is still the right answer, consider softening the blow by using the counter offer strategy. Bring your creative side into play and explore whether there is a way around the issue they have raised, and articulate this to them clearly.    

Good client or customer relations rely on solving problems like this and if your counter offer is an equally good solution, you put the power into their hands. Presenting your client with a solution that they may not have thought of themselves, but also suits you better, can be the best way to say “no” to a client and preserve the relationship. It can even help to grow the relationship, as they will learn to respect your advice. 

This can also work with colleagues. More and more of us are working collaboratively, or in teams, for much of the time. There are always people who will take on more responsibilities that they really should, simply because they don’t want to be thought of as “not pulling their weight”. Learning how to grow your ability to say “no” comfortably in this situation is important. And you can this, and still be a good team player. 

Make sure you have listened, and clarified the exact nature of the task, and the required timescale. It can help if you reflect this back to the team or group to make sure you have got it down clearly.  If you then feel that it is definitely something you shouldn’t commit your time or talents to, try to come up with an alternative solution, or person, which will still get the job done. The most important thing is to say “no” constructively.

If no is definitely the right answer BE CLEAR AND DIRECT

There is nothing worse than someone saying “yes” to something, and then being unable to deliver on the promises they have made. So if you are going to say “no”, say it now, and not when it is too late for it to be sorted out another way. 

A lot of us worry about how we’re being perceived by others, so we don’t speak up. But there are many people who prefer a more direct response because they can get moving rather than waiting on an answer. Don’t leave ‘em hanging!


 Learning how to say “no” and not risk your career, or your client and colleague relationships, also depends on learning how to say “no” without making multiple apologies or endless reasons. The person you are saying “no” to probably isn’t interested. They just want to get on and find another solution. Of course it is important to be polite, but saying “no” depends on saying no clearly.


 Trying to keep everybody happy all of the time is a recipe for stress and frustration – and it is literally impossible to do. You may fear that people will lose respect for you, or be disappointed, if you say “no” but the reality is that most people won’t think any less of you if you do it by being just as conscious about why and how you say it, as you are about saying it.  

Remember, too, that by saying no you are modeling not only good judgement but good self-care to those around you,

Practice saying “no” without excessive justification, explanation or apology – perhaps with a trusted friend, family member or colleague to start with. Notice how this feels and ask them for feedback.

In the next, and last post in this series, we will look at how thinking about your longer-term goals can help you set a course that will make it clearer whether “no”, or “yes” is the correct response.

Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers

Founder & coach

The competing pressures of modern life can make it hard to keep a sense of who you are, what you want, and the steps you need to take in order to live your “best life”. I give the individuals and businesses I work with the opportunity to stand back and take stock. A skilled thinking partner to work with while you do this may be all you need in order to find clarity, a renewed sense of purpose and a good view of the road ahead. I call this process reflect, reframe and refocus and I do my best to make sure it is a fun, creative and thought-provoking journey of self-awareness. Before training as a coach with Barefoot, I co-founded and ran my own PR agency. I know what it’s like to build and lead a creative start-up, to juggle multiple projects and to find some balance between work, home and family life. I have found my niche in working with creative individuals and entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. Past clients have included one who runs a ninja training gym, another embarking on a new career as delicatessen owner and a third who now heads up a social enterprise business.