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When it is better to say “no” than “yes”, and how to tell the difference!

This is the second of the series of posts based on my videos for Psychologies Magazine, looking at how to say "no" at work and still succeed. In this post, we will take a closer look at the internal checks and balances we can put in place to help us manage our responses.


Last week we looked at where the impulse to say yes may come from. We considered some of the external factors that influence us to make yes our default position. And some of the things that that we have internalised that make saying no more difficult. 

In this post we are going to take a closer look at how we can manage our responses more effectively. How can we be sure that no is the right answer?


There are some occasions when saying no is simply the right thing to do. Not just because it suits us, but because saying yes would compromise something much deeper – our values, ethics or morals. 

Sometimes your gut is your best guide! If it feels wrong, it generally is wrong.

Many of us don’t have a clear idea of what our belief or values systems are. Everyone’s is different. It may help you to learn more about your own. You can start by asking yourself some questions. What would you NOT be prepared to do, even if it would help you succeed at work? What is the kind of behaviour in others you admire? 

My yardstick was always “Will I be able to look myself in the mirror tomorrow if I do this today?”. It worked for me! Try to find what will work for you. 


Boundaries define the emotional and mental space between yourself and something or someone. They can be physical and tangible, or emotional and intangible. If you have ever said to anyone “I draw the line here”, then you have set a boundary. 

Boundaries are there to help us. They protect us, bring clarity to what is our responsibility and what is someone else’s and they preserve our physical and emotional energy so that we can stay focussed on what’s most important to us. But setting, and maintaining, boundaries can be difficult. 

An example of this may be that you have negotiated to do fewer hours at work, because you also have responsibilities as a parent or carer. Technically, your boundaries are in place. But how do you protect them? How do you avoid spending the time when you are not in the office dealing with the emails that just keep on coming, regardless of the day of the week, or even the time of day?

The first step in setting boundaries is to be clear about what your limits are – emotional, mental and physical. Your limits will be different from everybody else’s. You can learn to recognise when you have reached your limit by concentrating on your feelings. If something is making you feel uncomfortable or stressed, resentful or even guilty, notice these feelings as they will help you to clarify your boundaries. Think of them as cues to yourself that a boundary issue may be present. 

If a situation occurs several times, and you experience a negative response to it several times, this is an important cue. It may help if you get used to asking yourself “How uncomfortable am I feeling right now?” on a scale of 1-5 (when 5 is very uncomfortable). “How resentful am I feeling right now?” and so on. 

If you regularly deal with emails when you are not in the office – and your scores are slipping in the ‘high zone’ (4-5) it may be time to start saying ‘no’. You may be surprised how easily your colleagues will accept that you prefer to deal with un-urgent emails at a particular time, not as soon as they arrive, once this has been explained to them.  

Remember, boundaries are designed to protect you and your overall well-being. Others’ should respect this. 


Developing a clearer sense of what we are good at, and not good at, can help us to choose between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. 

Are we being asked to do something that will give us an opportunity to showcase our strengths and abilities, or is it going to take valuable time away from something we are good at that we really want to do well?

If you are asked to do something that you know you are not much good at, then the right answer is no. However if you are asked to do something that will stretch and challenge you in a good way, then clearly the right answer is yes. Only you can tell the difference so once again breathe through your impulse to give an immediate answer; check in with yourself; and respond accordingly.


Sometimes saying yes at work is the only option. Yes to that new project. Yes to that new responsibility. Yes to attending that important meeting, even though you don’t even have time for it.

Other times, you need to say no, and when that happens it is always good to explore whether there is another option before you actually say it. Is there someone else on your team who may be the better person to take it on? Can you recommend another freelancer, who may return the favour one day?

Are you saying no because you are GENUINELY too busy, when, if you actually spent some time examining what else you have to do, you may be able to find the time to do it? How well are you managing your workload? 

It can be particularly intimidating to push back if it is your boss who has asked you to do something. In this situation, think carefully before you respond, and if you really don’t have any spare capacity, explain why. Something like “I would love to do this, and thanks for thinking of me, but I think I should really be focusing on (A N other project) right now.” 

This has the added benefit of giving your boss the option to help you rethink your priorities, as her response may be “This is actually more important, and I think you are the best person for the job.”

That last point is a useful segway into what we are going to exploring in the next, and final, post. Which is how to say NO like you really mean it!

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.