Respect and the Act of Saying “No”

Respect involves listening and finding a way to a positive and constructive interaction with other(s). So how do we listen carefully and still respectfully say “No” without burning bridges and making it a negative personal matter?

In the workplace we are often asked to do things and frankly it is in the best interest to say “No” rather than saying “Yes” and failing. It is a little different when our boss asks us to do something. Saying “No” has a few more complications in that case. But often times the request is from elsewhere in the organization and in these situations the following is a reasonable framework for a respectful response.

Celestine Chua of The Personal Excellence blog has presented helpful guidelines for respectively saying No. Her view is that an effective process of saying No is more important than the actual No. When we say “No” thoughtlessly or clumsily, it can become more of a negative than the act of declining.  In this case respect refers to both:

  • Respect for Self: valuing our time and space; knowing what we want.
  • Respect for Others: saying “No” the right way to others who want the “Yes”; valuing their time and space as well.

Ms. Chua suggests the following process guidelines. Often times they are used in combination and my belief is that they are best applied after we’ve listened carefully and then are most sincere in our reply:

  1. We have to say “No” because we couldn’t meet the commitment if we said “Yes” (our plate is too full); we would likely fail and disappoint ourselves and others.
  2. The timing is not right; how about a different time (be specific)? We have to be genuine if another time would be acceptable.
  3. I would like to but….be specific why we can’t (only if we sincerely would like to).
  4. Let me think about it first (only if we really want more time to consider factors).
  5. This doesn’t meet my needs now but I will keep it in mind if my needs or situation changes (only if this suits us and the requester).
  6. I’m not the best person because of….; you may want to try person x.  Be sincere if we think we are not a good match and if steering them elsewhere, be sure of adding value.
  7. No, I’m sorry I can’t. Sometimes the immediate and direct approach is best for all. As an example, I know that most sales people feel that the thing next best to winning a deal is a fast and direct “No.”

Skill in saying No is important to the value of respect. The over arching principle is to make the No honestly and sincerely around the situation, process, idea or process, versus the person making the “ask.”  It is more respectful to provide a timely conclusion with a “No” rather than avoiding the perceived conflict and hoping the “ask” goes away.

with Character,


  1. Lorne says:

    Thanks Tony. I’m amazed how many times direct reports grit their teeth and take on overload without the dialogue. An effective leader should be very open to alternatives and as you note,supported by a respectful response. The self acceptable guide is to say NO accompanied by proposals to help the boss meet his or her goals. Thanks.Lorne

  2. Paul Bates says:

    One of the best ways I have learned when being asked by a manager to take on a ‘project or task too many’ is to present the work that you are doing right now and ask them to help you decide whether the request should take priority over the things that you alre already doing.
    If they think it does then great, they can help to advise which of the other tasks you should do less of / stop doing / delegate & if they think it doesn’t take priority then they will happily look for someone else to take the new responsibility on.

    • Lorne says:

      Great guidance Paul. It is very helpful. Sometimes the direct supervisor loses track of the volume of work already assigned. He or she needs the data to understand a ” no” is appropriate.


  3. Tony Doyle says:

    This is an interesting subject as we have all at some point in time been on the receiving end of a poorly delivered “no”. Anyone who is asked for a “Yes/No” decision must have the right to say “No”, otherwise why ask the question. But the decision maker must be respectful of the process that supports the request for a decision. The response should add value to the process, and not just act as a roadblock. Even in mission critical circumstances.
    When there is a need for a clear unequivocal “No” it should be supported by a response process that is respectful to the requesting process

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