How to Say “No”… Effectively

Saying “no” can be be difficult – even for leaders. And especially when your boss or someone important to you expects a “yes.”

Yet when we don’t say “no” effectively, we over-commit and under-deliver. We get distracted and procrastinate. We disappoint ourselves and others. And we compound our busyness and stress.

Here are a few questions to answer in order to improve your ability to say “no” when needed:

  1. Where do you absolutely, positively want to say “yes”? Get clear – and stay clear – on your top priorities, and saying “no” to other items becomes easier. Author Eugene Peterson observed that busyness can be a sign of laziness. It takes self-discipline to clarify priorities and to say “no” to good but non-essentials so you have the ability to “major on the majors.”
  2. How will you reflect each highest priority “yes” in your weekly schedule? Stephen R. Covey  tells a story of putting “big rocks” into a jar first to ensure there is room for them before putting in pebbles and sand. If you put the pebbles and sand in first, the big rocks don’t fit. Similarly, we need to develop the habit of first scheduling time in our calendars and to do lists to make progress on the most important items – the “big rocks.” Then we become clearer about when to say “no” to other tasks clamoring for attention.
  3. Where do you need to say “no”? Revisiting priorities may lead us to say “no” to an existing commitment or to a future commitment. Want to take on more strategic responsibility in your role? Want to really make progress on the most important priorities in your performance objectives? Say “no” in one area so you can say “yes” in another. Delegate. Shift resources. Discontinue a report, project or program.
  4. How can you say “no” effectively? Knowing when to say “no” is about leading yourself and managing your schedule. Saying “no” in a constructive way is about leading others and managing relationships. Here are some variations of saying “no” while applying good people skills:


      • No with empathy – “It sounds like this is an important project. I wish I could take that on, but our team’s plate is full right now with other high priority items.”
      • Not now but later – “We are booked solid through next week with other high priority tasks. Would the following week still meet your timeframe?”
      • No, unless… – “We would need to shift our current priorities and resources to take this on right now. Would you prioritize this above [Project B]? If so, are you ok if we delay [Project B] to make room for this?” Or “do we need to increase our budget to bring in more resources to handle this?”
      • No, but maybe someone else? “Do you think So-and-so’s team could help with this?”

Saying “no” effectively requires clarity of priorities, discipline in planning and scheduling and effectiveness in relationships.

Is there somewhere you need to say “no?”

Image Credit

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps senior executives and their teams clarify and achieve their “yes” list. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.