How to Say 'No' to Your Stakeholders With Confidence
— May 3rd, 2022
Asserting yourself at work is a core skill to master to uphold both your well-being and self-esteem.
Having healthy boundaries on both a personal and professional level sets you up for success, to perform better, be healthier, command greater respect, and boost your inner confidence and belief in yourself.
Yet, upholding boundaries, saying ‘No’ and generally honouring your own needs at work can be fraught with feelings of guilt, fear and not feeling good enough.
We don’t want to be seen as ‘work-shy’, lazy, unhelpful, or not a team player. However, taking on more work or doing something you don't feel is right leads to being stretched and stressed, causes you to feel frustrated, and means you’re less able to do a great job.
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Saying ‘yes’ when deep down you know you need to say ‘No’ is bad for you, bad for those around you, and bad for your organization.
Assertiveness, and having the confidence to say ‘No’ when you need to, is something we all need to master. Here are ways you can do it effectively, for everyone’s greatest good:
Firstly, notice and learn what your triggers are. Reflect back to see where you’ve overstretched yourself, gone against your better personal judgment, or felt frustrated.
Are there any patterns, perhaps related to a specific colleague, situation, or time-point? Or is it a general theme underpinned by a belief that you can’t (or shouldn’t) push back?
The more you can understand where and when you fail to listen to yourself, your inner knowing, the more self-aware and prepared you can become.
Failure to assert your own opinions or honor your needs is often grounded in a fear of the consequences of upholding those boundaries. If you say ‘No’ then you worry something bad will happen or the other person will be upset in some way.
But remember your time and well-being are equally as precious as another person’s. Don’t make assumptions that they’ll not be supportive, treat you differently, or be annoyed. You’ve really nothing to lose. Plus you’ll likely command more respect for being open and honest and inspire them to honor their own needs too.
Start to give yourself some time before you respond to requests and fully commit. This bit of space will ensure you say ‘Yes’ to the right things, take on the right work for the right reasons and save hours of potential stress and frustration in the long run.
You’ll also take the pressure off yourself and be able to assess your workload, the requirements etc with a calmer frame of mind in order to make the right decision, unfuelled by pressure or emotion.
Say you’ll come back to them in a given (appropriate) timeframe with your answer and make sure you do. Even having a few minutes to think it through might be enough.
If you decide that ‘No’ is the way to go then you’ll likely have to ride the inner uncomfortableness and call up a dose of courage.
Honoring yourself and upholding boundaries isn’t something you’re used to doing which is why it feels awkward and difficult, but give yourself time and you’ll soon feel more confident and empowered, especially when you begin to feel the benefits and reduce your frustration and stress levels.
Show the other person empathy and understanding for their situation when you give your answer, perhaps explain why you’re saying ‘No’ (although by all means don’t feel you have to justify it!) and have options ready to explore.
Could this work or request be reprioritized, taken on by someone else if it is a priority, swapped with other less time-critical work, or delayed to another date? Perhaps you could play a supportive, but smaller role in the work instead?
Discussing options isn’t just another route to getting you to go back to your original position however and end up saying ‘Yes’. Be firm, but kind.
How you say ‘No’ is important. Be assertive, yet understanding and solution-focussed. Don’t give the other person false hope you might be able to do it after all, all in the name of being too nice. It serves nobody well and undermines your integrity.
Know that it’s impossible to please everyone all of the time. Some people will totally understand and respect your decisions, others will be aggrieved, but that’s just how it is.
If their response is negative, don’t read too much into it. It’s not personal, and they’re entitled to feel frustrated or annoyed, but that doesn’t mean your needs or opinions shouldn’t be respected or honored.
Practice makes perfect, it’s said. Getting confident at saying ‘No’ or pushing back takes time and practice. You might even practice at home or role-play it with a friend or trusted colleague.
It’s a learned skill and one you can master. You might even be surprised at how people respect you more—because what you’re actually doing is respecting yourself more and thus commanding respect.
It also develops trust in you that when you commit you’ve considered it fully and then are fully committed to doing a good job - you’re not just an easy target who’ll always say ‘Yes’ and please others.
At the end of the day if you want to feel better at work AND do a better job, saying ‘No’ for the right reasons and in the right way has to be part of your skillset.