How To Say “No” When You Can’t Say “No”

Imagine you’re up to your eyeballs in work (indeed, no imagination may be required). Then imagine a colleague or client asks you to do something that would require your attention sooner, rather than later. (Again, zero imagination may be required if that’s a daily occurrence for you.)

Now imagine how that’s making you feel – and I mean really think about it.

What words or phrases are you coming up with?

Are they negative things like ‘stressed’, ‘fed up’, ‘overwhelmed’, ‘annoyed’, ‘chaotic’, ‘under-appreciated’, ‘depressed’ – or feelings of that ilk?

And are these feelings that would lessen – or even disappear – if you could stop what’s being asked for getting added to your plate?

‘But that’s impossible Jennifer!’ I hear you cry, ‘The person asking me isn’t someone I can say “No” to.’

Well, maybe they are – if you just go about it the right way.


I first read about this technique many years ago in Do More Great Work by Michael Bungay Stanier. (A book I’d highly recommend to anyone who’s fallen out of love with their job.)

In it he explains that the trick to saying “No” to someone you can’t say “No” to is to change your focus from giving a “No” to saying “Yes” more slowly. As he says, ‘Sometimes you’re being asked merely because you’re the first person they thought of or because the request hasn’t been thought through.’

So instead of saying “Yes” he suggests you respond in two steps:

Step 1

Say “Thanks very much for asking. Before I say “Yes”, just let me make sure I understand what you’re asking for.”

Step 2

Use a selection of three types of follow-up questions to get more clarity:

a) Why me?

  • May I ask why you’re asking me?
  • Have you asked anyone else?
  • Have you considered asking [other person] because they have more experience in this than I do.

b) What’s the brief?

  • When you say ‘urgent’ what does that mean? When’s the latest this can be done by?
  • How much time will this take?
  • If I could do only part of this, what part would you like me to do?

c) What’s the big picture?

  • Have you checked this out with my manager?
  • How does this fit with our three key priorities for the week/month/year?
  • What should I not do so I can do this?

The result?

As Michael explains, one of four things will then happen:

  1. The person answers your questions and you’re happy to say yes (a positive feeling).
  2. The person says, “Good questions – let me get back to you.” And they may not even come back.
  3. The person may ask someone else who’ll say “Yes” faster.
  4. Sometimes you’re just asked to stop with the questions and just do it.

Even if the outcome for you is the last one, at least you took control of the situation.

One final bit of advice Michael gives is to start with the smaller fish in the pond, then work up to saying “No” to the bigger fish – like your boss or a key client. And the cherry on the cake is, as you get to be known as someone who asks questions, you’ll be building a personal brand of being a strategic thinker.

What techniques do you have for saying “No” to someone you can’t say “No” to? Or do you find saying “No” easy enough in the first place? If you’d be happy to share, there’s a comment box below just waiting for your words of wisdom. Thank you!

Like this? Share it or join in the discussion…

8 responses to “How To Say “No” When You Can’t Say “No””

  1. Meg Burton says:

    Some great tips here Jennifer thanks for sharing, really like the questions in particular the why you have chosen me ones and checking the expected outcomes to ensure a mutual understanding of the brief as welll as questioning how it fits with your other workload to see whether it is more or less important/urgent than things you are already working on.

  2. Nicola Ralston says:

    I’ve nothing against these suggestions, especially if they result in the asker thinking more clearly about what they actually need. However, such techniques should only be employed when you really can’t say yes, not just when you don’t want to. Saying no pushes the problem back on the asker, who may themselves be under extreme pressure and then has to spend more time finding someone else, who may well be less suitable than you. Of course, no-one wants to be a soft touch, but those who pull their weight and say yes when it really matters are gold dust to their managers.

    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      That’s a good perspective and thanks for adding it. It really is the ‘I’m up to my eyeballs in work and close to breaking point’ scenarios when this works well.

  3. Tony O says:

    Excellent choice of topic at any time, but since I find myself overseas at a few days notice then it is more timely than most, although in this case it was my decision to drop everything to make the trip. There are some pointers that I will adopt. By happenstance I have recently used the “say yes, slowly” principle by agreeing to do some things but on my timescale, my terms. That was sufficient to get the other person to look elsewhere to get something done. What was urgent to them- purely to make themselves look good- wasn’t going to overtake my priority activities (and make me look bad).

  4. Matthew Cox says:

    As someone who, as you know, has said “yes” for 20 years, I’d enjoyed this post

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