Sorry, but no can do

30th June 2000 at 01:00
Just saying no can sometimes seem impossible. John Caunt offers some strategies for would-be refuseniks

Who do people look at during those nitty-gritty moments in meetings when the waffle stops and somebody has to take responsibility for getting something done? Is it you?

You're busily examining your cuticles when you feel the chairperson's eyes upon you. "I wonder if you would mind..." You may be pleased and flattered to be asked, confident you are the best person to do the job, but in our profession, willing horses are often loaded to a point that would threaten prosecution for cruelty in the equine world.

If you always say yes to requests that come your way, whether in meetings or one to one, you lose control of your workload. You overburden yourself and, by saying yes to unimportant requests, may find it impossible to fulfil key features of your job.

So how do you refuse? An erstwhile colleague of mine used to find it so difficult that he would invent excuses to leave meetings before the crucial moment. "I thought you were going to ask me to do something and I was afraid 'yes' would come out," he once admitted.

There are several reasons why saying no may be difficult. You don't want to get a reputation for negativity or perhaps to spoil your career prospects, and there is a natural tendency to avoid displeasing others or hurting their feelings. Maybe you underestimate the increased work pressure you will be under - or perhaps you simply don't realise that saying no is an option.

If you are in the process of establishing a reputation, you may need to say yes more often than is good for you, but it is important to be able to draw the line skilfully and assertively, and recognise that turning down a request is not something you should apologise for or feel guilty about.

If you're uncertain about a proposed new commitment, ask yourself a few questions. For instance:

* Does this comprise a core element of my job?

* Will my career prospects be affected if I don't do it?

* What else might I need to drop or postpone to undertake this task? What will be the effect of that on other elements of my job?

* What might be the effect on my general lifestyle - significantly increased stress, unreasonable intrusion n my leisure time?

* Will I miss out on any opportunity to develop a new skill if I don't do this?

Management trainer Janet Keen, a former business studies teacher, points out that weighing up these factors and giving an instant response is often difficult. If the required commitment is a significant one, asking for a little time to consider it is sensible, and demonstrates that you are not dismissing the request out of hand. But don't use thinking time as an excuse to avoid making a decision.

Take particular care with requests where the commitment asked of you is not immediate, but comes at some time in the future - a request to make a presentation or deliver a paper at a conference, for example.

When the event is two months away, it's easy to be over-optimistic about thetime you will need to be prepared. But as the day approaches and you findyour schedule ever more crowded, the additional task assumes the status of an unwelcome addition to a heavy workload. You end up resentfully turning out a rush job which doesn't do you justice.

Clarity about your future commitments and a firm handle on your priorities are the way to ensure that if "yes" does come out, it's because you want it to.



Complain loudly about being overburdened and taken for granted. Accuse the person making the request of being unreasonable, make veiled references to other people who don't pull their weight, then burst into tears or storm out of the room.


Mumble a response liberally laced with apologies and excuses, but stop short of using the word "no". Complain to colleagues later and waste time and energy fretting about the request, but end up carrying out the task resentfully.


Let it be known that you are pleased to be asked, but explain succinctly and politely why you are unable to respond positively. Suggest possible alternatives for getting the task done, and indicate any support you may be able to offer to whoever takes it on.

No prizes here. Option three is the one to go for. The person making the requestis under no doubt aboutyour response or the reasons for it, but does not come away angry and brow-beaten; and you donot damage your positive reputation.

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