The art of saying 'no' at work

I grew up being told that ‘please’ was the magic word. But, the older I got, the more I realised there was a word even more magical than that. A word that we become supremely adept at using around the age of 2, only to gradually lose the ease of wielding it in favour of more socially acceptable choices. That word, ladies and gentlemen, is ‘no’. Good, old no.


Women, in particular, are conditioned to be perfectly agreeable, meek and polite. To be ‘yes-people’ – in effect, to make sure others are happy before taking care of themselves. And, with that attitude, we enter the world of work with that agreeable chip on our shoulders, only to be hit with a wall of requests piling up so high that we end up boarding an express train to burnout.

So, how do you arm yourself with the ability to say ‘no’ when it’s called for?
It all starts with boundaries.

Why? Well, there are a few reasons.

1. There is no meaningful ‘no’ without boundaries.

If you don’t start with setting boundaries, what are you saying ‘no’ to? And why? What’s your motivation? What’s driving the ‘no’?

2. If you’re struggling with saying ‘no’ now, you won’t magically become a master of it tomorrow.

Sorry to be a little on the blunt side, but there is no magic wand I can wave to suddenly make you a great 'no' sayer. It's obvious you care. So we need to shift your caring somewhere else first!

3. You need to find your ‘yes’.

No is the yin to yes’s yang. You need both. But if you don’t know what you’re saying ‘yes’ to, how do you decide when to whip out the ‘no’?

So how do you make your life full of beautiful, fit for purpose boundaries that will make saying no so much easier? There are a few steps to it – it’s time to get started!

How to set boundaries at work

Identify your values and priorities

You first need to figure out what is most important to you right now. Is it limiting the time you’re at work to spend more time tending to your plants? Or maybe you want to power on with your career so that you can slow down in a few years, but there are certain types of projects you don’t really want to work on?

Spend a while here. This is the backbone of saying ‘no’ meaningfully, and you shouldn’t rush through this step. You might also want to discuss this point with your partner, family member, of a close friend.

Figure out how those values fit in with your job

Now that you’ve pinned down your values and priorities, it’s time to figure out how they fit in with your life. If you were to work according to your values, what changes do you need to make?

It might be that you should change your working hours or simply that you need to speak to your manager about shifting your industry alignment so that you are getting involved in different projects.

There are many different ways you can make it work, so don’t get discouraged if the right answer doesn’t immediately materialise. If you have a colleague that you trust, pick their brains – as a bit of an ‘outsider’, they might be able to look at it from a different perspective.

Decide what the boundaries will be

The world is your oyster – you can make them whatever you want, as long as they fit in with your values and your work. Feel free to be creative, and not just copy what you’ve seen others do.

If your best working hours are in the afternoon, setting a boundary of finishing by 5pm every day might actually be counterproductive! Your boundaries have to suit you first.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

People simply can’t respect your boundaries if they don’t know what they are. So, whatever boundaries you’re setting, or whatever changes you’re making to the way you will work from now on, you need to let the people around you know!

And remind them – because the only person you are the centre of the universe to is yourself, and people will forget. It also helps to practice communicating your boundaries – so whenever someone forgets, don’t get offended, just remind them!

Adjust your calendar, email signature, tell your PA (if you have one)

Make sure all of those things reflect where your boundaries are at e.g. by blocking time in your calendar, or adjusting the start/end times, or putting a note in your signature that states your new working hours, so that people can’t book meetings in those times without checking with you first. It will also save you from having to repeat yourself over and over again.

Execute and say the no!

You’re now ready to start saying no! Don’t worry if it’s a bit (or very!) difficult at first. Setting boundaries and acting on them is a skill, like any other. And like with any skill, when you first start with it, you will be a bit wobbly and uncertain. Persevere. Boundaries can be a real life-saver. You won’t regret setting them!
Good luck with setting, and acting on, your boundaries. You’ve got it!

Life Coach Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London, SE18
Written by Gaby Grzywacz, (ICF Dip. Coach) | Life/Career Coach for Multipotentialites
London, SE18

Gaby Grzywacz is a career change coach to corporate professionals. Her approach is to help you find more balance in your life, and help you avoid burnout. She has previously worked at a startup and a Big 4 firm.

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