Have you ever reluctantly agreed to do something that you did not want to do? Maybe you felt guilty saying no or you were simply trying to avoid a confrontation or an uncomfortable exchange. Whatever the reason, a lack of assertiveness is usually behind every “I wish I said no to this” situation. 

Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for oneself in a positive and non-confrontational way while being respectful of others. It is a skill that can take years to perfect, mostly because it is uncomfortable to put into practice. While many of us realize the importance of being assertive, it may fall by the wayside because it is often easier to say yes in the moment. 

Let’s be honest, saying no has a bad rap. 

By definition, the word no means to give a negative response. But what if you flipped the script and looked at saying no as a positive rather than a negative? When you say no to something, you can give time and energy to something else. Maybe that means more time with your family, time to focus on your own personal development, or a neglected passion project. 

Sounds great – easier said than done right? 

Saying no is uncomfortable. But the more we do it, the easier it becomes.Try this 4-step approach to standing up for yourself while keeping things light. 

  1. Start with gratitude:
    • Thank you so much for thinking of me! 
    • I really appreciate you reaching out. 
  2. Say no:
    • Unfortunately I’m unable to take that on at this time. 
    • I’m unable to give that project the attention it deserves so I have to pass. 
    • When I commit to something, I like to give it 100% and right now, my workload doesn’t allow for that. I have to pass. 
  3. If pressed, stay firm: 
    • Thanks for understanding. If anything changes, I will keep it in mind. 
  4. Move on and change the subject: 
    • How is (work/family/extra-curricular)? 
    • What is new? 
    • How was that meeting about (reference something specific)? 

Keep it simple 

An important consideration when saying no is to avoid overexplaining. By providing too much detail, it may open the conversation up to a discussion where you feel the need to defend your stance. Being direct keeps the conversation simple and ends the discussion on your terms. 

For more insight on saying no, check out this TedX talk: The Art of Saying No 

That’s all well and good, but how do I say no when the situation requires my participation?

In that case, let’s talk about boundaries and setting expectations. Let’s say that your boss is asking you to take on a new project or initiative that would require you to work additional hours. 

Address your concern 

  • I hear the urgency of this need, and I appreciate that you are discussing it with me. I am a bit worried about my workload and the time required to approach every project with the attention each needs. 

Use data or specifics when possible  

  • By my estimation, this would require me to work about 20 more hours per week to be able to give each project on the plate the attention they need. 
  • Looking at our client feedback data, I’ve noticed that when we take on an additional project over our typical 4 per account manager, our customer satisfaction rates decline.

Ask leadership to help you identify solutions 

  • What is the priority? Can (other) project take a back seat while I focus on this new initiative? What would that look like?
  • How should we handle this as a team / department? 

Ask for a timeline 

  • By your estimation, how long might this last? As you know, balancing my family and personal life with my professional one is important to me and I’d like to have an idea of what my time might look like these next weeks. 

Set check-ins to continue to reassess 

  • It would be helpful for us to check in every week and continue to reassess how things are going. Can I schedule a 1:1 on your calendar? 

While it can be difficult to stay firm in the face of a needy boss, remember that it is ultimately management’s responsibility to resolve issues related to task allocation and hiring. While uncomfortable, initiating a productive conversation while setting boundaries will ultimately serve you well. It not only encourages thoughtful deliberation, improving process and communication – it encourages a commitment to valuing employees’ time and work.  

You got this 

Flexing your assertiveness muscle isn’t always easy, but it is a valuable tool in managing your time in a way that works for you and your life. Other benefits of being assertive include: 

  • Gaining self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Earning respect from others
  • Improving communication
  • Creating honest relationships
  • Gaining more job satisfaction

Next time you are faced with a request that you are reluctant to agree to, take a pause before you respond. Reflect on what the request means for you and your time, and then approach the conversation with confidence. It is not easy, but it is worth it. 

If you struggle with assertiveness in your professional life, a career coach can help you identify goals and action steps to learn how to say no and set boundaries. Check out our executive coaching services and sign up for a free consultation here.