“Hey, could you do this for me?”
It’s a simple question. Being a team player (or a good direct report), it seems like a reasonable answer would be “Sure!” But there are times when saying “No” is the best way to respond.
This is not a matter of laziness or unwillingness to help. Rather, it is a reflection of other circumstances, such as you already being fully committed to other work. Or it could be that someone else would be better suited for the work.
Regardless, saying “No” can be difficult, especially when the request is coming from a boss or colleague higher in the organization.
The list below outlines some responses that are effectively saying “No” without necessarily using the word “No”. Clearly, none of these will work perfectly every time. You may also find ways to combine some of the approaches. The key is to adapt the response to the situation.
1. Express your willingness to help (with an explanation, if necessary). Showing that you have a willingness to be part of the solution is nearly always a positive approach. It will not serve you well to be known as the “No” person—the person who tends to respond “No” to seemingly every request.
- “I’d like to do that for you, but I’m not taking on new projects at the moment.”
- “I’d like to help you, but my manager has asked I complete these tasks first.”
- “I would love to be able to help. Unfortunately with the other projects I’m currently working on, I would not be able to get that done on time.”
2. Offer an alternative. The person making the request has a need. Giving them an alternative can be a responsible way to help without requiring you to do the work.
- “I won’t be able to do it, but I can show you how to do it.”
- “I see you need help. Roberta might be better for the job.”
3. Offer to do it later. This approach shows you are willing to help but cannot do so now.
- “I can’t help you now. However, I can do it next week.”
- “I wouldn’t be able to start that until Monday. Is that OK?”
4. Offer to do a part of the task. If your availability is short, you might be able to help with part of the task. Instead of signing up for it all, offer to help on part. This can be used as a way to help teach them how to do the task.
- “I can’t take the entire task on. However, I can do this part for you.”
5. Ask for the priority. When you are juggling many high priority tasks, sometimes the best thing you can do is to find out how a new request fits in with the others from a priority perspective.
- “I’m in the middle of several projects. Which one would you like me to set aside to do this?”
- “I’m fully booked working on __________. I’d be happy to do what you’re asking. Which project should be put on the back-burner?”
6. Buy time with a delay tactic. Sometimes requests surprise us and we seemingly don’t have enough time to consider them before responding. Instead of agreeing to something you can’t deliver or saying “No” to something you could work on, a delay tactic may give you just enough time to come up with a more informed answer.
- “Can I get back to you? I need to check my schedule.”
- “Can you stop by later? I’m unable to commit right now.”
7. Put some responsibility back on them. If you are doing work for someone else, it helps if they retain some accountability with the task. Sharing some of the responsibility can show how big of a priority the request is. It can also make sure the other person is committed to giving you the information and resources necessary for you to successfully deliver for them.
- “Could you put that in writing, including the due date and key outcomes? I will review it with my boss.”
- “Yes, I can do that. Here is what I need from you.”
8. Acknowledge your limitations. There are times you will be asked to work on something that is outside of your expertise. It may be a learning experience that is worthy of trying. But it also may be a situation that your lack of experience would make it extremely difficult to deliver successfully. Or it could be you are not available to help.
- “I don’t have sufficient experience with that. I can’t help you.”
- “I am on holiday for the next two weeks and will not be able to help.”
9. Say “No”. Finally, sometimes the best response is just saying “No”. This is particularly appropriate if the request crosses an ethical, safety, compliance, or other boundary. Beyond those difficult situations, this approach can also be helpful for people who have not caught on to your other attempts of saying “No” without saying “No.” In such a case, just smile and respond, “No!”
- “No. I’m not comfortable with that.”
- “No. Thank you for asking.”
“Hey, could you do this for me?”
“No, you idiot! Can’t you see I’m busy!” That’s probably not how you want to respond!
Though none of above strategies will magically make all unreasonable requests go away, here’s a dose of reality from my career: Too often I failed to at least attempt to influence the situation. Rather, I acquiesced.
I invite you to adapt one or more of these approaches the next time you want to say no but are concerned to do so.