Yes, But I Really Meant..?

by Guy Perring

LAST week we looked at assertiveness. One of the key techniques is being able to say “no”! Learning how to say “no” can be hard, but it’s something that can really help you be more productive, reduce stress and do a better job with the things you do say “yes” to. Saying “no” to some things can actually help everyone involved.

Learning how (and when) to say “no” is something that takes practice, especially if you’re someone who is honestly interested in helping everyone you can, or if you feel guilty every time you turn down a request for help.

Do you say “no” for any of the following reasons?
  • You don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings
  • You don’t want to explain why you want to say “no”
  • You don’t want to say anything the other person might interpret as negative
  • You feel compelled to spend time with the person because you haven’t seen them in months
  • The other person is particularly important to you
  • You would really like to oblige but you really don’t have the time
If you answered “yes” to any of these, recall some recent examples and think about them.

Our decision to say “no” depends on our:
  • self-respect
  • confidence about following our values and decisions
  • comfort about meeting our personal needs
  • understanding that our own sense of worth doesn’t depend on others’ judgements of us
  • wisdom in understanding our own limitations
One of the difficulties is the language to say “no”. Here are seven suggestions allowing you to say “no” and preserving your relationship with your colleagues:
  1. I have deadlines for several projects at the moment.
    (You need to be clear that you have no time currently. Don’t accept extra work, when you know you can’t complete in time or to the correct quality.)
  2. I don’t think I have the necessary skills to complete this kind of work.
    (Don’t accept work that you know you can’t do.)
  3. I really don’t have the time at the moment.
    (This may be because of work/personal reasons.)
  4. You will do a great job yourself.
    (This can sound patronising, but it may be that a colleague is asking for help or lacks the self-confidence to complete the work himself.)
  5. Why don’t I arrange a meeting with John who I’m sure can help?
    (Pointing colleagues to other experts is a useful skill and strengthens the organisation as a whole.)
  6. I’d be happy to help later.
    (Don’t use this unless you genuinely want to or can help.)
  7. No.
    (A direct “no” is fine if delivered in a careful manner. Don’t say it loudly or too quickly.)
The phrases above can help you stop saying “yes” to every request and build your assertiveness.

Guy Perring is Director, Professional Development Unit (PDU), at the British Council Malaysia. The PDU offers a wide range of learning opportunities from management and communication skills training to developing English skills. Visit it at or e-mail

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