Be More Effective – Week 19: Say ‘No’ the Right Way


We all have lots on our plates. By design, we have more things we could do, than what we can actually deliver in the given time. That forces us to make prioritizations and double down on the most impactful things.

With that, it’s important to know how to say ‘no’. Here is how I say ‘no’ if I need to. And how I appreciate other’s saying know, so that I can manage around it.

Saying ‘no’ the right way

It’s ok to say ‘no’. In fact, people expect you to be honest enough to say ‘no’ if you will not be able to do something.

It’s not ok to say ‘yes’, but then fail to follow through on your promises or to raise the flag the last-minute.

Say ‘no’ early. Help people understand why you need to say ‘no’. Offer alternatives. Escalate quickly if plans change.

So how do you say ‘no’ the right way?

Start with the ‘why’ (as always)

Explain why you cannot do something. Explain what else you need to do during the same time and why you think that is more important. Provide the background so that others can follow your decision.

If you need to say ‘no’ to your boss, explain to her how you are prioritizing and why you think another task is more important. If she doesn’t agree, list the things that are competing for your time. Ask which one you should drop instead.

Don’t just take on an additional task, hoping you will be able to deliver it without knowing when you would do that feat. Most people prefer an honest push-back over a best of intentions but unrealistic commitment that won’t be followed through.

Understand timelines

Not everything needs to happen right now. In fact, very few things are truly urgent, although many are perceived or presented as urgent.

Ask for when a task is due. Check your calendar and priorities and see when you can fit it in. Offer that plan and check for agreement.

Be realistic and ask people for true timelines. Many people will buffer when they really need something. Ask them to give you the real deadline, but then also make sure that you will be ready by that time. Otherwise you just teach them to add additional buffers in the future.

Offer alternatives

Try to find alternatives if priorities and timelines don’t line up. Maybe you cannot do the update this week because you need to work on an important paper for the team, but your coworker can take the work off your shoulder this time? Maybe the project update this week is not as urgent as it appears and it will be covered anyway in your more thorough update that is coming two weeks from now. Maybe the offsite follow-up can wait a week since you have blocked some dedicated follow-up time next week anyway.

Understand the true urgency and then plan for it. Find alternatives if things don’t fit but need to get done anyway.

For whatever plan, timeline or alternatives you offer – make sure you actually plan and block time for it!

Escalate early if plans change

Only one thing is worse for a manager than a team member who comes the day before a deadline to tell you that he won’t get the work done in time: a team member who tells you the day off.

As soon as you realize that plans won’t happen as initially scheduled, you need to let everyone who counts on your deliverable know. Give a heads-up as early as possible. Have checkpoints ahead of your deadline so that you yourself will know right away if things get out of control.

Escalate early! Given enough time to react, there is almost always another solution. If you only learn about an issue the last-minute, there is usually little that can be done.

Similarly, if you need to de-prioritize or completely drop work that you had initially planned, you need to let everyone who is waiting on you know as quickly as possible.

Again, the ‘why’ does the trick. Explain why things needed to change, what you had to prioritize. If possible at all, offer a new timeline or another solution. Check if that’s ok for the person who was counting on you. Don’t just drop the bomb, or even worse, don’t let the other person find out on their own.

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