Learning to Say No: Setting Boundaries While Remaining Professional

The key to being professional is to know how to set boundaries. However, this is often easier said, than done. Here are some ways that you can learn to say no, and still remain a professional in the workplace.

business woman

Balance Work, Life, and Play

Without boundaries, you can find yourself working until all hours of the night and into the weekend. Is this already happening to you? Do you feel like you have no time for your family or friends? It’s difficult to set boundaries, especially when doing it for the first time. Remind yourself that this ‘no’ is for your family, or for yourself. Your boss or clients are not more important than either one. Be honest with them. If they are asking for a deadline that can’t be met without extra hours, tell them that family comes first. Explain you have obligations to them that you can’t miss.

work life balance

Tell Them to Ask Again Later

Sometimes you aren’t sure if you can commit to a task or not. Perhaps your default is to always say yes in those situations. This can potentially set you up for failure. Failure at meeting a deadline often appears worse than saying no from the start. If it’s something you are interested in and would like to commit to, ask them to ask you again later. Tell them you want to check your calendar or finish your current task first. Never say you are too busy. Deflect the question until you can find time to consider whether their task will fit into your schedule. Do not forget to follow up with them when you have a minute later that day.

Present a Solution

An alternative to saying no would be to present a solution to the requester. An example would be, “Thank you for asking. Have you tried asking Emily? I believe she has more availability than me.”  It is always important to give full attention to the request. Otherwise, you may give an impractical solution shining a light on the fact that you were not paying attention. Maybe they already let you know that Emily wasn’t the right fit. That will not reflect well on you. Another idea is to think outside the box. If you have been asked to throw a birthday party for a co-worker that you can’t commit to, ask the requester if the delivery of a large fruit basket would work instead.

Politely Say No With Gratitude and No Explanation

Sometimes no is your only option, and there is not always a need for an explanation. Perhaps it’s a task you don’t feel qualified enough for. Maybe you’ve been asked to do something on your day off when you were looking forward to lounging around in your pajamas and read. It’s ok to say no if you finally have some time to yourself and you want to bask in it with no commitments. Honesty will not often work in these situations especially if the requester feels the task is more important than your excuse. In these instances, it is ok to simply say, “Thank you for thinking of me for this task. I regret that I have to decline.” If they pressure you for an explanation, simply say, “It’s personal.”

Explain That You Are Not Available

One of the easiest ways to decline a project is by explaining that you have commitments elsewhere. With everyone overcommitting themselves these days that is often your truest explanation. There is no need to explain where that commitment lies. It could be with family; it could be another project at work, or it could be for the shelter where you volunteer. Regardless of the commitment, be sure to show appreciation for the ask and when appropriate, suggest an alternate solution.

Other Alternatives

If you are extremely interested in the task you are being asked for, or have a desire to work with the requester, look for alternatives. Explain to them that the deadline or scope of the project is not something you can commit to, but you would like to discuss further options. These options could include decreasing your level of involvement. They could include reworking tasks to determine the most important and delaying deadlines on the rest. Or, perhaps you can support someone else who has more availability to take on the role that is requested. If you can’t think of any alternatives, you could explain your desire to be involved in the project and ask the requester for other ways they think you could remain involved. Even if it doesn’t work out, they will remember that despite your inability to help, you were a team player.

Remain Confident in Your No.

Be confident in your response. This is great advice for your entire professional career. If you are feeling guilty while saying no to a task, your body language will give you away. It will shrink in size, your eyes will shift down, and your voice will get weak. The requester may see this and assume that you are lying about your ability to commit to their task. This will often cause them to either refuse to ask you again for anything or push you into giving them a better explanation. They may even get angry and argue with you wasting both of your time. If, however, you stand tall and firm while declining the task, they will see that you are telling the truth and let it be. They will respect you for acknowledging your limits.

Say No in Person

Don’t decline important tasks and projects through email. The response can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. It is respectful to walk to the person’s desk, assuming they are in the same location as you and decline. By seeing you in person, they can see you are truly grateful for the request. They can see that you are remorseful that you can’t help them out. You may even get to share in a bit of small talk which can help further your sense of community within the company. The more sense of community you foster, the more people are willing to accept your no’s and be open to asking again. If you are not in the same location, you may be able to generate this same sense of community through Skype or some other video conferencing.

Be Aware of Body Language

As mentioned before, body language can often speak louder than words. Be aware of how you appear to the requester. Are you standing tall and confident? Is your voice clear and concise? Are you looking directly at the person with whom you are speaking? These are all indicators that you are not only listening to the person you are talking with, but you are truthful and sure of your answers. Remain open to alternate suggestions they have and show that openness by keeping your arms uncrossed. Keep your body turned and face them, not pointed in another direction. If they see that you are mostly turned away with only your eyes on them, they may perceive that you are eager to cut the conversation short and are no longer interested in them. This may be true, but it is important to give each person your utmost attention and respect.




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Learning to Say No: Setting Boundaries While Remaining Professional

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