Handling the discomfort of saying ‘no’

You’re a day away from your vacation, and your manager asks you to assist on a project that’s going live in the same week of your leave. Which means that you won’t be able to take a complete break. Plus, this project is in addition to the ones you’ve been handling. You want to say no, and you’d be well within your rights to do so. But you can’t. It feels uncomfortable. Ever wondered why?

Saying ‘no’ isn’t just about refusing a task. There are underlying fears that play into our discomfort. But, it’s also a necessary skill. As Steve Jobs said, “It’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” Let’s look at the undercurrents at play, so we can address them:

  1. Fear of confrontation. Following the rules set by those in authority – teachers or elders – is a childhood conditioning that we carry into our adult lives. Countering demands from leaders or managers could be misinterpreted as breaking a rule. Similarly, declining requests from colleagues could lead to conflict. Moreover, someone who says ‘no’ may be perceived as difficult. As social beings, we want to avoid this. We want to be liked – and this creates internal resistance when it comes to saying ‘no’. 
  1. Fear of disappointing others/guilt. Being the bringer of bad news is never any fun. To avoid disappointing others, we may choose to comply with a demand. For instance, if your team member asks you to handle his workload while he takes a holiday during project delivery, your refusal may disappoint him. This fear of letting someone down may steer you to accept a request, even when you know it isn’t feasible.
  1. Fear of losing out. The competitive spirit is an amplifying force for us humans. We all love being recognized. This impulse is strongest in the work environment, especially if it is connected to a financial reward. So, we may accept additional tasks. While it is important to challenge oneself in a work environment, it’s equally essential to recognize one’s capacity, to avoid being counter-productive.

So, when faced with a request that you might turn down, it helps to be aware of what drives your discomfort. Once aware, you can take proactive action to reduce any ill-feelings:

  • Start with assessing your workload situation and bandwidth.
  • If your schedule simply has no room, be honest and explain your reasons for refusal.
  • If you still want to be helpful, offer a solution that works for both parties. Suggest a later time when you will be available or even alternative resources who could pitch in.

Most importantly, be kind but firm in your response. This will help you communicate your point of view and foster healthier relationships with your co-workers. For more tips on refusing requests with grace, check out our previous blog on mastering the gentle art of saying no.

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