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How to say "no" without saying "no"

Has this happened to you?!?

Your boss calls you, and they have an amazing assignment for you. There's just one little problem. You're at capacity. You have a mile-long project list, and you can't take on another project. Something's gotta give.

You're conflicted. You want to say "no". You need to say "no" for your own sanity and life balance. But, you don't want to be perceived as not willing to go the extra mile. Worse yet, you want to be able to deliver a high-quality product. However, this fear of how you'll be perceived, and the "conflict" of saying "no", drives you to say "yes" instead.

Saying "no" feels like a risky response with serious consequences around your image at work. But it doesn't have to be. Saying "no", especially to your boss, can actually lead to an empowering conversation and could be beneficial in more ways than one.

Here's a step-by-step approach you can take the next time you want to say "no":

  1. Acknowledge the assignment positively. More often than not, your boss thinking of you for an assignment is indeed a compliment of your capabilities. Respond with enthusiasm by saying, "This project sounds exciting, and I appreciate you thinking of me!"

  2. Engage in a dialogue around prioritization. Rather than see this as a conversation of you saying "yes" or "no"; see it as a conversation about prioritization instead. Consider saying to your boss, "I would love to chat with you about my current project list and get your perspective on how I should prioritize this relative to the other projects that I am working on".

  3. Let the dialogue and coaching flow. As you engage your boss with your project list, a few amazing things start to happen:

    • Your boss gains immediate transparency into the entirety of your project list. Often times, even the best bosses (and definitely the worst ones) may not have the full appreciation of the work on your plate.

    • It gives you an opportunity to share your impact on these projects. It ends up being a great opportunity to "sell" yourself, without having to overtly do so.

    • More often than not, this dialogue leads into a collaborative discussion on prioritization. The typical end result is a reprioritization of other work that is less critical or reassignment of work altogether.

Does this work every time? Not always. It does require a collaborative boss who is invested in your development. It is not lost on me that not all bosses or working environments support collaborative dialogues. That being said - I don't think that's a reason to not take this approach. At the very least, the transparency to your work never hurts.

The art of this conversation is getting in a mindset of dialogue versus response to a request. In addition, this approach can't be a dialogue you have every time you're assigned something, as that would lead to questions of your capabilities in the long-run.

Let us know what you think. Have you struggled saying "no" to your boss? What approaches have you found helpful?

Shine on,



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