Saying no nicely

7th March 2008 at 00:00
Jo Ellen Grzyb and Robin Chandler, experts on the art of refusing with a smile, have a foolproof plan for nice guys

Can teachers be too nice for their own good? In a word, yes. Sophie, a teacher for 10 years, is definitely too nice. She's cheerful and fun to be around but isn't wet behind the ears. She has a reputation for being tough but fair with her classes.

But that toughness vanishes when dealing with her colleagues and she becomes far too accommodating. She feels incapable of turning down requests such as: "Sophie, you're so good at this, could you just ..." or "I'm at the end of my tether, I really need you to help me out on this after-school project or we'll disappoint the children," or "Sophie, I heard you say you didn't have any plans this weekend - I could really use your help, it won't take more than an hour."

Tony has no problems with his colleagues. But if the head comes his way, he knows he's a goner. He'll cave in before he even knows what the head's going to ask him. Well, guess what? His head knows just who to go to - he doesn't even bother asking anyone else.

You'd imagine that people who can command a roomful of unruly pupils would be at home managing their colleagues' demands. That, however, is simply not the case. Too often, teachers feel cowed by requests from their heads and unable to refuse their colleagues.

If this sounds like you, you are not alone. We have been running workshops on niceness for nearly 15 years and during that time we have seen more teachers than almost any other profession - apart from solicitors, strangely enough. All the qualities that make for a good teacher - compassion, flexibility, thoughtfulness, co-operation - are the very ones that can get you into trouble saying yes when you want to say no.

What stops people from changing or even attempting to change is fear of consequences. Perhaps in rare cases there may be career implications, but most people imagine far worse consequences than are rational.

In Sophie's case, it seemed as though her peers approached her either just as she was gathering her papers together and getting ready to rush off somewhere, or when she was sitting in the staffroom getting away from it all. They got her when she was least prepared to say no.

Our first suggestion was for Sophie to do something physical. As soon as one of her fellow teachers approached her she was to stop what she was doing, stand up straight and keep eye contact with them.

These suggestions were to help her feel on more of an equal footing, rather than wrong-footed and at a disadvantage.

Next, we recommended that she pre-empt her colleagues before they could get in their requests: "Ah, it looks as though you're going to ask me to do something. What is it this time?"

We didn't suggest she say no or refuse to help. What she was doing was subtly giving notice that she was not a pushover; the other person was going to have to work to get what they wanted.

When she felt confident enough to do that on a regular basis the next step was to buy time. Again, there's absolutely no need to say no. Buying time phrases include: "That's an interesting project, let me think about it overnight"; "I'll need a bit of time to look at my schedule, I'll get back to you"; "I might be able to help, but I'm not going to be able to commit just yet, let's talk tomorrow."

These aren't delaying tactics. They are markers to let the other person know that they can't always get their way when they want it. It still allows you to give in, not at the time and place of the other person's choosing, but at yours.

Finally, we told Sophie that once she felt able to say no, one option was to over-apologise. She was already pretty good at saying sorry at the drop of a hat, so we told her to just add more sorrys. "I'm so sorry, I really wish I could help out. I really am so sorry I won't be able to give you a hand this time. That's terrible of me, but I'm so sorry my schedule is quite full up."

It may read over the top but it can do the trick. Instead of the usual assertiveness teachings that tell you to just say no, people don't have to change anything about themselves - they just have to do it more deliberately. Over-apologising allows you to stay nice as pie and still refuse, without offending anyone.

Now let's look at Tony. When the head asks a favour it can feel intimidating. We suggested that he, like Sophie, slow things down instead of immediately capitulating. A combination of schmoozing ("That sounds like an interesting project"), coupled with buying time ("I'd really like to think about it overnight and we can talk about it in more detail tomorrow,") and setting limits ("I'll be able to give an hour a week to your project"), gave Tony a chance to formulate and rehearse a more thoughtful response.

His answer might still be to give in, but what our techniques allow him to do is to practise saying things such as: "I've given a lot of thought to that after-school project you mentioned yesterday. I'd certainly like to hear more about it, but in looking at my own schedule, timing is going to be tight. The good news is that I can give you an hour a week and perhaps we can find someone else to help out as well."

This leads us to another simple technique when turning someone down: offer lots of options. Saying no can feel curt and rude, whereas offering alternative solutions shows you're willing, but you're just not going to do all the work.

There's no question that teachers have a hard enough job just doing their work without all the extra burdens heaped on them by colleagues and heads. Becoming less nice will make your work life easier and more fun.

Jo Ellen Grzyb and Robin Chandler are the authors of The Nice Factor - The Art of Saying No (Fusion Press).


- Work to your agenda, not someone else's. Slow things down if you feel someone is trying to rush you into a decision.

- Buy time. Have a number of time-buying phrases at your fingertips.

- Avoid smiling and nodding. Nice people smile and nod their acquiescence too much. If you don't, you're giving out a different message.

- Over-apologise. If you're already good at apologising, do more of it. If you overdo it, others may end up apologising to you.

- Get your "no" in quickly. Even if you change your mind, if you say "no" right at the beginning, the other person might think twice the next time.

- Give back the problem. Many people have a knack of making their problems yours. They aren't. It's OK to say: "I'd love to help you out, but I just won't be able to this time."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today