How to Say No Politely And Professionally

Do you find that you have a hard time saying “no” when something is asked of you? I felt like this for most of my life and still fight the urge not to immediately blurt out “sure!” when someone asks me for their help. I could probe under my mental hood for why I have this innate inclination to say yes but at the end of the day, it’s simply part of who I am. I know I have a lot of company in feeling this way.

There’s a whole plethora of books and reading material on how to say no to the many things asked of us in life. Many of us are raised in such a manner that we feel we should always be helping others. That we should always be willing to lend a helping hand whenever possible. And many of us are taught that to get ahead in our work life, we should be willing to “do what it takes” and take on additional responsibilities.

You have to work hard to get to the top of your profession. And these things are true to a point. It’s when we always say yes to things that are asked of us that we risk burnout and overcommitting ourselves. With that let’s look at how to say no politely and professionally.

Why Saying Yes all the Time Isn’t a Good Thing

There’s a well-used term for people that say yes to everyone and everything. It’s called being a people-pleaser. And I was a world class people-pleaser. It’s not bad, of course, to help out when asked to or pitch in when needed. The problem arises when you say yes to everything.

In short, you realize you are living your life for others and not for yourself. Saying yes to everyone all the time can lead to some bad long term issues.


One of the worst things that come from saying yes all the time is a growing feeling of resentment towards others. When your friend who never does his homework asks you yet again for your notes, how does that make you feel when you slide them over to him?

One time, I was training a new person on my team. I showed them how to do something. And then I showed them again. And again. After a few months, I realized I was doing a ton of this person’s work simply because they asked for my help again, claiming they didn’t quite get it.

When I realized what was going on, I told them it was time they figured it out on their own. I woke up to how resentful I was to be working with someone who took my kindness and turned it into a way for them to do less work.

Mentally and Physically Fatigued

Something else that commonly happens when we say yes all the time is we become fatigued, both mentally and physically. If you have to lose sleep in order to check everything off your to do list and a lot of that is for other people, you’re going to wind up getting more and more tired.

I know from experience when I am trying to tackle too much, I have a hard time sleeping because I can’t shut my brain off. I can’t turn it off because I keep thinking about everything I have to take care of, much of it not impacting my own life. This is taxing to say the least.

Not Your Life Anymore

When we wind up doing more than we should for other people, we wind up not working on our own lives as much as we should.

We can get to the point of feeling like we aren’t even living our lives because we are paying too much attention and time on things that are important in other people’s lives. This is not a good place to be in at all.

An extreme example of this is someone that is taking care of another person who can’t take care of themselves for one reason or another. Of course, we want to be there for our loved ones when they need our help. That said, when one person has to take care of another for an extended period, it can feel like the person tending doesn’t have their own life any longer.

Losing Boundaries

One of the best ways to get to a place of how to say no politely and professionally is to establish boundaries. Boundaries are something I learned about later than I would have liked to but once you discover them, it’s a very freeing feeling to establish them in your life.

Boundaries are essentially something you create in order to live the type of life you want to. It’s sort of like a set of guidelines that you have set in your life. From time to time, you share them with others depending on the situation.

Some examples may include working no more than 45 hours in a week at your job, or not staying in an unhealthy relationship. We typically learn to set our boundaries when something happens in our lives that makes us say ‘I don’t want that situation again.” Here’s a few examples of my boundaries:

I bought a truck several years ago. Almost immediately, people began to ask me help them move something. Which of course, I did at first. Once it got to a point where I was helping people numerous times a week, I decided I would help someone with my truck once every two weeks and only at a time that was convenient for me.

I enjoy having a full life. That said, I don’t like my life to be full with just my day job. Therefore, I limit the number of hours worked per week in my day job to 45. If the number of things on my plate take up more than 45 hours, and they almost always do, I prioritize working on what’s important first and foremost.

Now, let’s find out how to say no politely and professionally in order to keep our sanity.

How To Say No Politely and Professionally

The key to saying no politely and professionally is to frame the “No” in different manners so you’re not just awkwardly staring back at someone and then mumbling a “I can’t do it”.

There’s different ways to say no to various people you interact with in a way that works for you, and still be polite and respectful towards the other person. Here’s a few to consider.

To Your Boss

Saying no to your boss can be intimidating. And unless you enjoy eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at your desk, sometimes you will reach a point where you have to tell your boss thanks but no thanks.

To your boss, you want to paint the picture that you are honored to have been considered for the additional work, but other priorities will make that not possible right now. Something along the lines of:

“I really appreciate you thinking of me for this project. Currently I was planning on spending this week/month on projects X,Y, and Z. As I recall those were high priorities”.

“Wow, thanks so much for bringing this to me. Right now I have a full load working on project X & Y. Would you prefer I set aside that work and spend my time on this new project instead?”

To Your Colleagues

I love helping out my colleagues and really appreciate their help from time to time as well. However, sometimes I am not able to lend a helping hand due to the workload I have at the moment. In this case, you’ll want to keep it pretty close to the truth whenever possible.

“That’s a very exciting initiative to be heading up Brian, you must be stoked! Thanks for asking for my help with the survey piece of it. Truth be told, this is not what I’d consider an area of strength for me, I’d probably slow things down. Lisa is pretty good at those, you might ask her”.

“You know I normally love doing this type of work Beth and I really appreciate you asking for my help with the layout part of it. Unfortunately, the timing isn’t good, our boss Mark has me working on a presentation to the ELT for next week”.

To Your Clients

Saying no to a client can be tough. After all, they are the ones paying you. The main thing here is to make sure your client feels heard and understood. Once you fully listen to their input or want, share with them how you are addressing this very issue from another angle.

“You know Bob, I completely get what you are saying and couldn’t agree more. I was thinking that we would be able to address the 36-45 age range when we highlight the positive results in compound XYZ”.

“Karen that is great, I appreciate you pointing that out and bringing it up to make sure we address it. Mandy on the team has been looking into that as well, I’ll ask her to share her thoughts on what she has discovered in our meeting on Thursday”.

In Your Personal Life

With people in your personal life, it’s best to say no and the reason why. Maybe you’ve already got something else planned, or it could be you just don’t want to. Of course, you want to be respectful of people’s feelings; but with your closer, more personal relationships, it’s best to be honest about why you are saying no.

One of my rules to help keep me on the path of not always saying yes is that I am always happy to help someone, providing they are doing the main work. After all, someone is asking me for my help in their life, so they should be the one doing the heavy lifting.

This has come up in many situations. When my oldest daughter would complain about not having any money, I’d offer to help her make a budget. She would need to set a time and place and I’d be happy to help her. When someone has asked me to help them move something with my truck, of course I’m happy to help – here is when I am available: You want me to help you in the yard? Sure I can certainly do that. However I am not available today, I already have things planned.

Bottom Line

With a little luck, you’ve learned something about how to say no politely and professionally. Helping others out from time to time is great, it’s nice to know that you can count on others when needed and visa versa. It helps us feel connected and part of something greater than ourselves.

Unfortunately, it can become too easy to say yes to too many requests for help. This can lead to resentment and burnout. When someone asks for your help, take a moment to consider if it’s something you genuinely want to do and can do, or if it’s better to say no politely and professionally.

More About the Art of Saying No

  • What You Need to Do to Stop Being a People Pleaser
  • 16 Things You Don’t Need To Say Yes All the Time
  • The Gentle Art of Saying No For a Less Stressful Life
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00