How to Say “No” Without Being a Jerk

Have you ever found yourself wanting to say “no,” but you are afraid that doing so may make you look like a jerk?

So instead, you say “sure,” “happy to,” or “of course.”

As soon as those words are released from your mouth, you are hit with regret. You know your answer should have been “no.” But you like to be liked. And now you are stuck with another obligation. You now have less time to focus on that which is most important to you, and, potentially, others.

It’s frustrating.

Being a team player is a good thing. Everyone like to work with someone who is a team player, and every boss wants to hire one. But being a team player does not mean abandoning your primary responsibilities, those for which you were hired. It will ultimately hurt you and the organization.

The act of declining does not have to come across as mean-spirited. You can say “no” without being a jerk. Here are a few suggestions how to do this:

  1. Be clear. Sometimes we can dance around the answer so much that the other person isn’t sure if you are agreeing or disagreeing to assist. They may actually think that you are agreeing to assist when you are trying to decline. Which would be a disaster. So be very clear with them. Your response doesn’t have to be a single “no,” but it needs to be just as well-communicated. Say something like “I’m sorry, but I cannot help you with your project at this time.” Be clear in your response.
  1. Be honest with your reason. The next step is to provide a reason. If you are bombarded with current work projects, tell them. If you have family obligations, tell them. Declining without explanation will come across as harsh. So provide an explanation, even if it is brief. You don’t have to go into every detail. More than likely, they will understand. They have been where you are as well.
  1. Be polite. As you communicate, whether verbally or electronically, consider your words. Is your language respectful? Is your tone appropriate? If they are in front of you, consider your body language. Don’t roll your eyes or let out a big sigh. Be empathetic of their situation. Communicate with them in the same manner that you would want to be communicated to.
  1. Be helpful. Just because you are not able to take on the obligation, you may be able to still help. Consider any resources that may benefit them. Don’t hold back. Point them toward these resources, even if it is another person.

Let’s take a look at how this would play out.

Coworker: Can you help me with this project? I really could use you on it.

You: I’m sorry, but I can’t help you at this time. I have three projects that are due in the next few weeks. I really have to focus on them. You know, you should talk to Jenny. She just completed a project that is very similar to your project. Even if she is unable to help, she may be able to provide you with some good advice.

Coworker: I understand. Thanks for telling me about Jenny. I’ll see you later.

See. You can say “no” and not be a jerk. Just be clear, honest, polite, and helpful.

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