Learn To Say No Effectively - Set Boundaries Without Hurting People

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Learn To Say No Effectively - Set Boundaries Without Hurting People

Break Through Your Own Ways Of Thinking To Increase Productivity

Paul Knulst  in  Self Improvement May 30, 2023 9 min read


You can find him almost everywhere – the helpful and thoroughly nice colleague who can never say no. He is particularly popular with his employees, as he likes to take on some work from time to time and, above all, makes life easier for his colleagues. But although this sounds a bit unusual, at first, this attitude is not conducive to a career and can even hinder it. But how exactly does saying no actually work?

Fight The Causes And Fears When Saying No

There are many reasons and causes why people simply cannot say no, both in their private and professional lives. Perhaps the most common reason is fear of the consequences of rejection. Especially when your boss makes the request, your first reflex will always be to say yes, because it is well known that superiors do not promote employees who do not comply with the corresponding requests. But working at the weekend or overtime during the week is only possible for a limited time, and the supervisors must also be able to recognize the limits of their employees - or be shown them.

So, it is not always advisable to accept wishes without ifs and buts. Instead, self-protection should take hold at some point, and it should be made clear to the boss on a rational level why the request cannot be fulfilled now. Superiors are people who can be persuaded with appropriate arguments and do not take a rejected request badly.

Is Yes A Matter Of Politeness?

The fear of rejection is also a reason repeatedly given, which ensures requests are regularly fulfilled. So there is often the thought that the relationship with colleagues will be disturbed if corresponding requests are rejected. In addition, there is a bad conscience, because we are usually taught in childhood that help cannot be refused if it can be given. If this help is not provided, many people think that they are considered heartless and selfish in the eyes of their employees - which, of course, nobody wants.

However, you should beware of people who are using exactly these arguments, because in many cases, such statements only serve to manipulate. Learn to avoid these people whenever possible and confidently decline when confronted.

Basically, you don't have to be liked by every colleague - especially not if this affection can only be bought with favors.

Is Your Ego the Problem?

Do you feel flattered when your colleagues come to you with questions and requests? For many people, this brings an emotional upgrade, and they feel good for a short time and almost a little powerful. Again, beware of people who try to boost your ego with flattering words and dump their work on you. A famous quote from Moliere is as correct then as it is today

Even the wisest fall prey to flattery.
(Même les plus sages tombent en proie à la flatterie.)
- Moliere

Of course, compliments always feel good, but in the long run, you're not doing yourself any favors if you don't respond with a definite no to corresponding requests.

The Trap In Everyday Professional Life

In fact, more and more professionals have the feeling that the word no is mutating into an absolutely taboo topic in everyday life: Words like uncooperative, selfish, and even lazy are then hushed up, and once such rumors are created, it is always difficult to get rid of them. In the worst case, it is even assumed that the work will be rejected because you are not competent enough, and the task will completely overwhelm you.

This creates unsightly expectations that lead to requests not being rejected. Sometimes there is even real fear of further requests because you have already reached the limits of your capacity but do not want to refuse further requests. This is neither healthy nor sensible, and this comfort trap usually creates a vicious circle with negative consequences:

  • You lose the ability to assert yourself, which would be essential for your career and a managerial position.
  • You become dependent on the opinions of colleagues and superiors, so you cannot develop at all and lose your self-confidence.
  • You always want to please everyone and take on more and more tasks, but this leads to many mistakes, which means that you no longer please anyone - least of all yourself.
  • You always allow yourself to be taken advantage of because once you've said yes to a colleague, you won't reject anyone - which means more and more employees will turn to you.
  • You end up overdoing yourself completely and overloading your own possibilities, which in the worst case, even has health consequences.

So there are many reasons why you should learn to say no. Of course, small favors maintain friendships or good relationships with colleagues, but anyone who only says yes will quickly fall into the favor trap and find it difficult to get out again.

Step By Step Guide To A Polite No

The first step to getting out of this vicious circle is to recognize the current situation. Only when you know you have fallen into the classic decision trap, can you take steps to get out of it? First, you should try to find out which individual reason led to this situation in the first place so that you can avoid it in the future:

Helper Syndrome

There are several reasons behind the classic helper syndrome and some people love the feeling of being needed. If they are regularly asked for help by colleagues and superiors, this shows their own irreplaceability, which is why they affirm every request and slowly but surely fall into the favoritism trap with their false ideas.

Feelings Of Inferiority

Another common reason is feelings of inferiority, which should be compensated for by accepting all requests.

However, this is also a wrong way of thinking, because although there is short-term recognition and positive reactions from the boss or colleagues, this usually leads to a classic downward spiral: the many favors quickly add up, making one's work suffer and with that, the recognition dwindles. This means that every recognition is seen as special and further requests are answered in the affirmative - this creates a vicious circle that keeps escalating and ultimately ends in massive stress or even burnout.

Sense Of Responsibility

Another reason why you might fall into this decision trap is a false sense of responsibility: The new colleague just can't get along with the system and keeps making mistakes? Or does an employee have a presentation coming up, but it has been anything but presentable? Many people want to be nice in such a situation, help and take on part of the work - but it is not uncommon for this to be just a manipulative scam by colleagues.

Anyone who regularly seeks help in this way has already recognized that you are falling for this trick. It's perfectly fine to decline such questions because you have to do your own work and are not responsible for poor timing or mistakes by your co-workers.

The "I don't want to miss anything" Problem

This sentence is repeatedly cited as the main reason why people cannot say no. You have to finish a project by tomorrow, but your colleagues want to invite you for a beer? Or do you still have important calls to make, but the employees are meeting in the café across the street for a quick snack? It's not always easy to use a no in such situations because there's a chance you could miss exciting or fun situations that everyone else was involved in. Many people are also afraid of being seen as splitters or even boring and therefore allow themselves to be persuaded to have a beer after work, even though the body urgently needs sleep.

But the same applies here: it is better to let social contacts rest and do a good job than to maintain the reputation of your colleagues but simply not to catch up in time. Ultimately, you can also go for a coffee on another day or treat yourself to a beer after work. Only if you set the right priorities you actually make a career or finish work on time.

Competitive Orientation

Humans are competitive and our primal instincts mean that we are constantly comparing ourselves to those around us. However, this can lead to false conclusions, especially on a professional basis, because ultimately everyone has their own pace and a different workload.

Nevertheless, feelings of guilt arise when a colleague voluntarily works overtime or accepts additional projects while you are already well-occupied with your previous tasks. This often means that additional requests are still accepted, because, after all, nobody wants to do worse in comparison and perform less - although this would not be the case. Just try to meet your own standards and not compare yourself to the performance of the employees, then saying no will be much easier.

Overcome The Guilt Of Saying No

No matter how many times you practice saying no, or how many times you realize that you are already stretched, guilt almost always remains when you turn down requests. Because somewhere in the back of your mind, a quiet voice always asks the question:

Isn't it way too selfish to just say no?

In fact, this question can be answered with both a yes and a no, because, on the one hand, it is, of course, selfish to refuse requests from colleagues and superiors. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing, because if you try to do more than you can, that attempt will certainly have negative consequences in different forms. In the worst case, you are confronted with burnout or even have to fight physical damage from lack of sleep and too much stress.

So a no as self-protection is a selfish decision, but it also benefits the employer. If you are ill, you cannot work. Ultimately, when getting requests, ask yourself the following questions before deciding whether or not to:

  • Who is actually asking me for the favor and why?
  • In the long run, does a yes or a no help more?
  • What exactly is this request about and can I do it at all?
  • Does the request align with my own goals and values?
  • Do I currently have the time or do I simply lack the strength for it?
  • Is the request in the interest of my employer or should I not rather refuse it?

The last point, in particular, is a consideration that should not be underestimated, because does it really help the employer if you take over the work of the new colleague so that he doesn't make any mistakes? Or does that not hurt his performance in the long term?

Learn To Say No - Here's How

As it is always easier to say no in theory than in practice the following three examples will show a good way to create appropriate situations.

Example 1

If your colleagues ask for a favor that you simply don't have time for, then refer to the project that you have already taken over from your superior or that an important client project has to be done first. Normally, these tasks rank higher than co-workers' requests, so you've found a reasonable reason to decline:

I would really like to help you, but you know that the deadline for the important customer project XXX is approaching and this is the priority at the moment. I'll be happy to help you afterwards if you still need my help.

Example 2

If your employees or superiors regularly insist on your expert status on a topic, you can delegate the inquiries by pointing out that another colleague is also familiar with the area or that inexperienced colleagues should also be given a chance - especially with the indication that someone should be able to represent you in the event of illness.

I'm currently training XXX in this subject area. Maybe he can help you? This would allow him to delve deeper into the subject and hopefully relieve me as much as possible in the future. If you still have questions afterwards, I will of course be happy to answer them. Does that sound like an acceptable solution for you?

Example 3

Unfortunately, you are not always able to offer reasonable alternatives. However, you are of course not forced to always say yes. You should not let a no stand in the room without justification. What you can do? Try to explain to your counterpart in a comprehensible way why you unfortunately have to reject his request at the moment.

I know that I have always been responsible for this project over the last few years. But I'm currently at the upper limit with my capacities. I therefore think that it would be better if someone else took on this task this year. This certainly brings with it fresh ideas and creative solutions that I have not yet come up with. I think variety is a good thing, don't you think?!

Additionally, body language is just as important as the content of your refusal, because if you don’t appear self-confident, colleagues will come back with a request shortly afterward. Try sitting or standing up straight and arching your back before firmly saying no. Eye contact is also very important so that the colleague knows that you really mean business.

Closing Notes

Of course, it's not about refusing every request and constantly saying no, but you should always think carefully about what would make sense in the current situation - and then reject it if necessary. You are neither egotistical nor uncooperative if you just say no and if you still feel guilty, try to convince yourself with the appropriate arguments.

Only if you are convinced that you can say no can you confidently reject requests and break out of the vicious circle. While helping others is important, knowing your own limits and prioritizing your well-being is even more important. In this way, you will not only be successful in your professional life but also in your private life.

What do you think about the topic? Are you more of a yes or no person yourself? What consequences has it had for you in the past to occasionally say no or yes at work? What do you think everyone should pay attention to if saying no? Also, do you have any questions?

I would love to hear your feedback, your thoughts and answer all your questions. Please share everything in the comments.

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By Paul Knulst

I'm a husband, dad, lifelong learner, tech lover, and Senior Engineer working as a Tech Lead. I write about projects and challenges in IT.