Six Strategies for Saying No Without Getting Fired

Maybe you’ve fantasized about quitting, but you’re not ready to give up your steady paycheck, 401k, or insurance?


There is a quit alternative.  Transform your current job into a job you love by engaging with it’s full potential, marshaling the resources around you, and seizing the opportunities that are there for the taking. 


A powerful way to start transforming your current job is to learn to say “No” without getting fired, as I suggest in The Quit Alternative:  The Blueprint for Creating the Job You Love…Without Quitting. 

Saying No Doesn’t Have to be Personal

I struggled with saying no for so long because it felt so uncomfortable. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, so saying yes seemed easier.


But this led to a lot of self-inflicted pain. I took on much more than I could do. I’d end up stressed out, burning the midnight oil, and predictably, dropping the ball and making things far worse for everyone involved.


Never saying no = self-inflicted pain.


I knew that saying no more often would free me to set priorities well and succeed more often. Knowing you should say no, and actually saying no, are very different, however.


I learned to view saying no, not as “a rejection of the person,” but as “a decline of their request.”


This wisdom immediately lifted my guilt. It made saying no a lot less personal.


You can Say No without Rejecting the Other Person

No one likes rejection, so from then on, whenever I delivered a no at work, I’d emphasize the request so the asker didn’t hear it as a personal rejection. This may sound like semantics, but it makes a big difference.


Making the “no” specific to a request (or an offer) is the key to ensuring the other person receives it as a decline of a request rather than a rejection as a person.


Repeat the request, and then use the word “decline” or “no.” Go one step farther with a counter offer.


For example:


Instead of saying, “I’m not going to do that for you.”

Say, “I’m not doing that report this week, but how about if I complete it next Friday?”

Instead of saying, “I’m not going to work on your project this weekend.”

Say, “I won’t be working on your project this weekend, but what if you ask John?”

Avoid saying, “I’m sorry,” because people see through that unless you’re really sorry. Avoid saying, “Don’t take this personally,” because that makes it personal. Avoid saying, “I have to say no because of my boss,” because that passes the buck—and they might call your bluff by talking to your boss, who might tell you to do it anyway.


Sometimes no matter how you frame that no, the other party will interpret it as a rejection.


Action: Recall the last time someone said no to you at work. Did you take it personally? What’s it like to consider the no a decline of your request versus a rejection of you?


Why You can Always Say No

Lastly, saying no is a human right. The only people who risk their lives by saying no are enslaved, the victims of the most serious crime against humanity. If you ever catch yourself thinking, I can’t say no, question that thought.


You’re always choosing to say yes or no, even if you’ve said yes so often to your boss, coworkers, and spouse that it’s become the modus operandi of your relationships. It’s never too late to adopt a negotiation mindset, and say no.


Try These Strategies for Saying No

The art of saying no is indispensable. It is not always easy, however, and in some circumstances it could jeopardize your employment.


Fortunately, there are many ways to decline a request without actually saying no.


Here are six ways to say no without saying no, along with scripts for each.


Strategy 1: The “Prioritizer” (highly effective with executive leadership and direct bosses but not clients or coworkers)


Instead of no, say, “I’m working on _____, _____, and _____. How would this assignment rank on that list, in terms of priority?”

This strategy shows your willingness to help and enlists their support in setting priorities. Sometimes this leads the asker to take the request to someone else, freeing you to get back to work. Another benefit is that the asker might come up with someone to take care of another of your priorities to free you up to address this request.


Strategy 2: The “Booked” (highly effective with coworkers, but not bosses or clients)


“I’m booked until _____. I can put it on my list and get to it then. Does that timing work for you?”

Again you’re demonstrating your willingness to help, but also communicating that if the request is urgent, better to take it somewhere else because you are booked.


Strategy 3: The “Clarifier” (highly effective with everyone, including clients)


“Please be more specific about _____.”

“What does completion of _____ look like?”

“When do you need _____ by?” (You can follow this question with the Booked or Prioritizer strategy.)

Often, when someone shows up with a request, they’re not entirely sure what they are asking for and what would satisfy their request. Asking them to clarify the details often transforms a huge task into a simple one, or they realize asking someone else makes more sense, or they answer their own question!


Strategy 4: The “Breather” (helpful with everyone, including clients)


“I’ll get back to you by _____.”

“I’ll check with my (boss, to-do list, team, spouse) and get back to you by _____.”

This strategy is especially helpful with people who are pushing you to agree to their request on the spot. It creates a space for you to get perspective before agreeing. And it may be easier for you to say no by email later, than in the face-to-face situation where they may reject your no and keep pushing.


Strategy 5: The “Direct” (a strategy that depends on your confidence with the person to whom you’re speaking)


“No” or “I decline.”

A majorly bold move. One of the most direct ways to say no and therefore one of the most respectful. The challenge I find with saying no this way is that often people want an excuse or an explanation. If you offer any, the conversation could become tricky because they may not respect your reason. I recommend exploring other strategies before this one.


Strategy 6: The “Trade-Off” (also known as the “Negotiator,” works well at all levels and also with customers)


“I will do _____ if you would gladly do _____.”

One of my favorites, and under-utilized. Instead of saying no, you propose a trade-off, which may lead to negotiation and mutual satisfaction for both of you.


Now Try a NoTrial Run

Now, choose one of the strategies above and do a no trial run today.  It may feel a little awkward at first, but notice the positive impact it makes.


Get Your FREE Digital Copy of The Quit Alternative!

This article is an excerpt adapted by Ben Fanning from his forthcoming book, The Quit Alternative: The Blueprint for Creating the Job You Love….Without Quitting. Ben will be giving away a limited number of digital copies at launch time. To get notified when they’re available, sign up at