Skip to main content

How to Confidently Say "No" at Work

How to Confidently Say "No" at Work

Do you often say "yes" to requests from colleagues and clients when you really want to say "no?"

Sometimes it seems easier to agree rather than explain why you can’t or don’t want to do something...until you find yourself wishing that you’d stood up for yourself while stressing over all the work you’ve taken on.

Saying "no" at work is sometimes (maybe even often) necessary. And it’s time that you started saying it with confidence.

There are two common reasons people say "yes" when they don’t want to:

  • Feeling pressured to agree (and being uncertain as to how to deal with that).
  • Fear about how others will react (or what they’ll think).

What you need is a clear way of dealing with the pressure and a mindset shift around what saying "no" really is.

Here’s the thing: Saying "no" isn’t about the no. It’s an enforcement mechanism to preserve your boundaries. And boundaries are the rules you need to protect your priorities and your well-being.

It’s impossible to perform at a high level - or to serve others to the best of your ability - without strong boundaries. Although you might be regarded as a hero in the short-term for saying "yes," it will eventually hurt you.

Saying "yes" to things that aren’t priorities means pushing real priorities down your list or trying to do everything. That’s frustrating, stressful, and overwhelming. And it negatively impacts your work product.

Here’s how to say "no" with clarity and confidence.

[Related: 4 Ways Burnout Increased My Happiness and Professional Growth]

Step 1: Set the proper foundation.

Since saying "no" is about protecting your boundaries, your first step is to identify where you need to strengthen them.

Take a few minutes to clearly define your priorities - both at work and personally. Think about the rules you need in place for your well-being. Remember, the point of strong boundaries is to help you be your best.

This exercise will give you more clarity around the precise reasons why you’ll be saying "no" in the future. It’s easier to say "no" when you have a compelling reason that matters. It will also give you more confidence that you’re doing the right thing.

[Related: How to Take Back Control of Your Life for a Happy Career and Balanced Lifestyle]

Step 2: Be brief and clear.

The best way to say "no" at work is to keep things simple. Although some people consider "no" to be a complete sentence, it can be seen as rude.

There’s no reason to justify yourself, but I do recommend giving a brief, clear explanation (one to two sentences suffices). By doing that, you’re being respectful. There’s no reason to apologize, so don’t.

If you feel pressured or aren’t sure whether you want to say "no," buy yourself time. Tell them that you need to check on something or think about it, and that you’ll get back to them at a later time. This will give you some breathing room to determine whether you want to accept their request (and how to say "no," if that’s what you decide to do).

If you can assist in another way, offer it. Making a counteroffer is a secret weapon to gaining appreciation and respect despite refusing the initial request.

Step 3: Stay the course.

Saying "no" once should be enough. But some people will continue asking and get emotional (they might even beg).

You may be tempted to start justifying yourself when this happens, but there’s no reason to. Be brief - don’t be afraid to sound like a broken record. And remember that you’re not rejecting them, but instead are upholding your own boundaries and priorities.

Here are a few ways to repeat yourself respectfully:

  • “I’ve already given you my answer, and ask that you respect it.”
  • “As I’ve already said, I can’t.”

Saying "no" doesn’t have to bring on added stress - it should be the other way around. Follow these three steps to start saying "no" at work with confidence so that you can focus on your priorities and be more productive.

[Related: 7 Things Smart People Do To Avoid Passion Burnout]


Heather Moulder is an attorney and executive coach who helps successful yet unfulfilled professionals create success from the inside out (on their own terms). She writes and speaks often on how to retrain your mind for resilience, get clarity of purpose, and confidently achieve your big goals. Connect with Heather to learn more about how have a fulfilling career that’s balanced with a real life.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook:

Start your day off with The Morning Boost, our daily newsletter with everything you need to take your career to the next level – all from members of the Ellevate community.

By sharing your email you agree to our Terms of Use & Privacy Policy

By sharing your email you agree to our Terms of Use & Privacy Policy


Thank you! Career advice and opportunities are on the way to your inbox.

Add your zip code, so we can invite you to our local events!