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Health and Harmony in the Workplace: How to Say ‘No’ When Necessary

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Whether we like it or not, sometimes we sometimes have to say no to a customer, boss, or co-worker. However, most of us have difficulty uttering “no” for various reasons that may not serve us or our customers.

No business or employee can say yes every time in every situation. There are a number of circumstances such as federal regulations, confidentiality or other laws, specific company policy and procedures, or items are out of stock or no longer available. Workloads may have reached capacity and beyond, or the skills and time just aren’t there to accomplish what’s being asked.

Tune into Your Resistance

The first step is to understand any resistance or discomfort to saying no.

Do you tend to say yes, but feel a strong no inside because you are afraid of being rude or hurting someone’s feelings, fear rejection or retaliation, want to avoid conflict, or worry that a no may mean a lost opportunity or door closing? Perhaps you say nothing at all and hope the request will go away. 

These situations never do go away and we have to face saying no in our personal and professional lives. If you have a tendency to quickly say yes, try to buy time to think things through. Say you need a day or two to look at your calendar, check with your family, or re-examine your workload. This strategy works well when asked to take on optional commitments. 

Learn How to Say No

The second step is to learn simple ways of saying no nicely and effectively.

Grace Marks

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If your boss asks you to take on one more project when you already have more than you can handle, you can say, “My plate is really full with (A, B, and C) projects. Please let me know if you want me to re-prioritize.”

If you are asked to be on a committee or volunteer for an office function, you can say, “This is really a busy time for me right now and I cannot take on any more commitments. Or, you can offer an alternative such as; “I cannot do that, but I can do this ______.” Offer a less demanding commitment that is on your own terms.

This same approach applies to customers when you are unable to give them completely what they want. You never just say “no.” The customer will feel disrespected and that you don’t care about them or getting their business. 

Apologize, Educate and Offer Options

Apologize that you are unable to provide what the customer is requesting. Apologizing shows empathy towards the customer’s disappointment.

Next educate the customer on the reasons why. Customers will be much more understanding having more background information. If possible, you can offer other options – “what I will do is ____” or “what I can do is____.” Offering options and alternatives helps ensure a more positive and successful customer outcome.

Keep Up the Positive Attitude

A positive and friendly attitude and tone of voice are also an important part of the equation. All build customer loyalty which is significant given it costs five times more in energy, resources, and money to get a new customer than it does to maintain a current one.

Practice getting more comfortable saying no by choosing some easy and low-risk situations. Tune in to your feelings to understand any resistance and keep building your “no” muscle. 

Grace Marks, MPH, CPC, is a certified life coach, motivational speaker, and workplace makeover specialist with Native Empowerment: Solutions for Health and Harmony providing customized training programs for tribal organizations and businesses. If you have any questions or comments, please direct them to or visit