How to Say “No”

Saying “no” to things is a learned skill that takes continuous practice, and a good amount of balance. The balance is because when you’re starting out in your career, I firmly believe that it’s important for you to agree to requests and to take on new tasks. It gets you out there, introduces you to new people and new skill sets, and teaches you so much you might not learn just performing your regular job. But then we get into a habit of saying ‘yes”, and we all know how hard habits are to break. We think things like, “if I don’t do it, no one will” or “if I do it, it will be done correctly.” Or more than just those things, we all like to please people, especially our friends and colleagues. So when a friend asks you to take on another research project or review a paper or look over some data or run a test or cover their call, we all readily agree to taking on just one more task.

As with every other aspect of life though, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Saying “no” occasionally is good for your overall health and sanity. It’s entirely possible to reach a stage where you’re so over-whelmed that you cannot do a good job at any of the tasks you have undertaken. Thus learning the art of saying “no” is also important, and is something I myself am just still struggling to learn.

Here are some points to remember that may help you when you need to say “no:”

  • Don’t give an immediate response, especially if you have any concerns about having time for this new task. Tell the person you will get back to them after some thought, and tell them when you will reply to them.
  • Give yourself time to consider whether the new task can be accommodated in your current workload, or whether you will have to short something else to accommodate it.
  • Be firm once you’ve decided. Don’t use phrases like “I don’t think I can.” Say “I cannot. ” And be persistent because you may have to turn down this opportunity more than once.
  • Always remember, you are turning down a request, not a person. It is especially hard when the request comes from a friend, but sometimes it is necessary.
  • Accepting a task that you don’t have time for is not doing any favors for yourself or the person asking. If the requestor has to then become a nagger to get you to complete their task, they will not thank you for it.

In conclusion, it’s important to maintain a balance at work without overloading yourself with too many tasks to allow you to accomplish any of them well. Learning to say no to requests is an important part of keeping that balance.

-Patti Jones PhD, DABCC, FACB, is the Clinical Director of the Chemistry and Metabolic Disease Laboratories at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, TX and a Professor of Pathology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

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