How to Say “No” in Tough Situations

With so much more to do than can possibly be done, setting boundaries by saying “no” to things you cannot do, or simply don’t want to do, can be a practical and liberating stress-relief tool. In addition, the ability to confidently speak up improves relationships and performance. If you have trouble saying no, whether it’s from fear of missing out, ruining a relationship, getting fired or any other reason, the following tips and scripts can help you say “no” in these common situations:

When your boss delegates more than you can juggle:

General Guidelines:

  1. Many bosses lose sight of the ongoing or in-process work on your plate – especially if you are doing a great job. This situation is a great opportunity to clarify your focus and priorities, while also reminding your boss of the valuable work you are doing.
  2. People who generate a lot of ideas often aren’t as clear on how long it takes to make them happen. Giving your boss a clear picture of what’s involved in pursuing an idea or project is critical when it comes to evaluating whether it’s worth doing.

Sample Scripts:

  1. I would love to work on this, and I think it will take me about two weeks. Which of these other projects in my queue should we de-prioritize?
  2. This sounds important, and I can get it done by the end of the week if I delay project X. Or I could finish project X this week and start on this after that – do you have a preference?
  3. This is a great idea, and I estimate it would take approximately 10 hours to have the meetings and conversations required to get it started. Then we’d need to put 5 additional team members on it for 3 months to complete the project. But I’d have to take them off project Y – which we both know is critical. What do you think makes sense in terms of the best use of our time and resources?

When someone you like invites you somewhere you don’t want to go

General Guidelines:

  1. Sometimes people invite you because they want you to know you are welcome and don’t want you to feel left out, but they’ll have just as wonderful of an experience with or without you.
  2. Sometimes people invite you because they really want or need some time with you personally and it’s not about the activity itself.
  3. It’s often better to buy yourself some time if you tend to say yes automatically and then regret it later.

Sample Scripts:

  1. That sounds like a lot of fun. I actually promised my family I’d prioritize them on weekends, so I won’t be able to join, but have a great time!
  2. How fun! Let me check my calendar and get back to you – I don’t want to say yes until I’m sure I can commit.
  3. I would love to spend time with you, but I’d rather not attend a party. Would you be up for lunch next week instead?

When someone asks for something you really want to give them, but know it’s not a good idea

General Guidelines:

  1. This situation often arises with children and employees who both want to know they are important, that you care about their feelings and that you are trying to understand their perspectives. If you can show them this, then yes or no on any particular decision matters less.
  2. Allowing those you care for to experience short-term frustration as a stepping stone to long-term growth can be one of the greatest gifts you give as a parent or mentor.

Sample Scripts:

  1. Milkshakes DO taste really good, but they can harm your body. We have bananas at home that we could use to make smoothies. Smoothies taste good AND are good for your body. How does that sound?
  2. I know your family is important and I’d love to give you more time off for the holidays. Unfortunately, the holidays are our busiest season, and we need all hands on deck during this time. We get slow starting in late January, and I would be willing to work with you on taking time off then but doing it now will hurt all of us.
  3. I know this is frustrating for you, but I’m not going to change my decision. This is a great opportunity for you to practice handling this kind of challenge because it isn’t the first time you will face it. I know you’ll find a way to push through and find a positive outcome.

When you get pushback

In any situation where you find yourself saying “no”, most people will accept your response graciously. However in some cases you might experience pushback, with others asking you what your other plans are, or why you can’t make it or fit in their request.

General Guidelines:

  1. When people push hard to convince you to do something, it is likely rooted in a need they don’t know how to get met. It’s less about you and more about them getting their need met. If you can figure out the need, then you can help them find another way to get it met.
  2. You don’t owe anyone an explanation, but sometimes it feels kinder to give one. Keep in mind that their request is never really about you, so the more you talk about why you can’t do something, the shakier your position becomes. The simpler your explanation is, the better it will be received.

Sample Scripts:

  1. I really want to give myself ample time to focus and do a good job with anything I take on. This is how I’ve been able to produce high quality work in the past, and I know how my work is impacted when working amidst stress and distractions.
  2. I’ve made a commitment to keep my work within work hours and focus on family, health and personal growth outside of that.
  3. With young kids at home, I’m not likely to get to an evening event, but keep inviting me / keep me on your list – they sound like a lot of fun, and I might be able to break away one of these days.
  4. It sounds like you really need help with your event. I can’t be there, but I would be happy to pass on your invitation to my network. Or, I can’t be there, but I would be willing to bring over some appetizers.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic or finding out about our programs, you can contact Nahid via e-mail at or call 714-931-2133.


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