Saying no is simply rejecting a request, not the person making the request. The ability to make this differentiation helps you develop the art of saying “no”. You are not conveying anything negative about the person or hurting their feelings.

Saying NO to Peers

Lynn Battle, writing for, recommends being honest, calm and polite. It will help you stay in control and avoid escalating the situation or alienating the person. People are much happier to accept an honest “no” than be faced with indecision and a delayed refusal.

She goes on to suggest six ways to say "no" and mean it.

A direct ‘no’. When someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, just say “no”. No apologies, just a direct and succinct no. “No, no I simply can’t”.

A reflecting ‘no’. In this case, you acknowledge the content and feeling of the request and add an assertive refusal at the end. “No. I know you want to talk to me about serving on your committee, but I can’t do it today”.

A reasoned ‘no’. Give a brief, and genuine, reason for the refusal that leaves no room for negotiation. “No. I have to submit that report by tomorrow morning.”

A raincheck ‘no’. This is a way to say ‘no’ to a specific request without giving a definite ‘no’ and is a prelude to negotiation. Use it only if you genuinely want to meet the request. “No. I can’t sit in on that meeting today, but I could make the meeting next week.”

An inquiring ‘no’. This opens up the request to see if there is something you may want to do. “No, I can’t help with the new proposal, but is there anything else I can help you with that would take less time?”

The broken record ‘no’. If you receive requests from someone who just won’t take no for an answer, just keep repeating: “No. I just can’t today”. “No, I just can’t today.”

Saying NO Your Boss

How about if your boss comes to you with something she “really needs your help with right now”? Saying NO to your boss, especially as a new woman manager, is a little more complex and depends on the relationship you have with him or her.

Negotiating a compromise works best, especially as a new woman manager.

  • Get ahead of the necessity to say ‘no’. During formal or casual talks with your boss, let him or her know that you’re ready to help whenever possible (after all, you’d like to have his or her job one day). But there may be times when you’ll need his or her understanding if you are unable to accommodate a request. This pre-emptive attack on the problem says you are forward looking and that you are committed to maximizing the use of your time.

  • Is there is someone on your team to whom you can delegate your boss’s request, someone who has the expertise to get the job done right and is flexible enough to adjust their schedule? You know what your team members’ workloads are and the importance of their current tasks. “I can’t do it right now, but Jill could help you”. If there is no one on your team to whom you can delegate the request, there may be something you are working on that can be delegated, freeing you to say ‘yes’ to your boss’s request. (The caveat here is to be sure you don’t end up “dumping” on a particularly talented team member.)

  • How time-sensitive is the request - really? If your boss is constantly coming up with fire drills, suggest that you could get to the task done tomorrow, or the next day. That buys you time to reschedule your time and get some help from your team.

  • Suggest that there might be a way for you to split elements of the task so that neither of you has to drop everything you are doing. You might even offer to bring in one or two of your team members to help if they are available. This says you are a team player.

  • Depending on the specifics of the request, consider calling in a favor owed to you by one of your peers – a time when you helped them out of a similar bind.

Of course there will be times when you have no alternative except saying no. If you’ve laid the groundwork for mutual respect in your relationship with your boss, you’ll be able to do it. And you will earn his or her respect when you do say ‘no’ if you’ve established the reputation of a willing negotiator, delegator, compromiser and collaborator.

Use Your Body Language Skills

When you know you are going to be saying NO to a request, use your body language to be sure your message comes across loud and clear:

  • This is not a time to smile. A smile gives the impression you are happy about what you are being asked to do.

  • Keep your body as still as possible – no encouraging nods or aahs.

  • If someone stands at your desk, stand up too so the other person doesn’t have the power position.

    “Just Say No”

    Saying NO can save you a lot of long-term stress. Don’t wait until you’ve become a manager who works hours after everyone else has left before you learn to say “no”. You may be choking on resentment because you feel you’ve “been volunteered” for something you don’t have time to do, or may find yourself reaching for a stash of Tums whenever you need to be take a tough stand with your boss or someone you manage. Learn to use the word!