Last updated: 31.10.22

How to say no professionally

Saying no in a professional setting is never easy, but the importance of this skill – which goes hand in hand with setting boundaries – has been thrust into the limelight recently thanks to the introduction of ‘quiet quitting’.

Though there is some debate about what it actually means, ‘quiet quitting’ is linked to a stressful job, ones with excessive workloads or lack of control, and through frustration at the lack of acknowledgement or reward for the overtime they are doing, employees feel no choice but to put their foot firmly down and say no. They don’t outright quit, they ‘quiet quit’, meaning they stay in their jobs, and only do what is required of them, refusing to be pulled back into the ‘hustle culture’.

Recent research from Champion Health shows that excessive workloads and lack of control are two of the top 10 causes of stress in the workplace, with 76% and 35% respectively citing them as negative sources of stress at work; so, is it any wonder that people are reacting this way?

But setting boundaries and saying no don’t have to be born out of frustration. They can have, and should have, a place in any workplace. They are key skills that can help reduce stress, feelings of being overwhelmed and help people stay happy in their roles. But they aren’t easy, which begs the question – what can you do to develop these skills?

It’s all about how we communicate

Saying no and setting boundaries is all about communication. Open communication is key to having productive conversations around this – ones that both you and your manager will feel are beneficial and useful. Here are some tips on how to improve your communication.


Clarity is important for any communication, and carefully considering what you’re going to say will help the conversation get off to a good start. So before launching in, carefully consider the ‘whats’, the ‘whys’ and any ‘hows’ of what you want to say, as it’s these details which are key to making sure everyone is on the same page.

The why
Why are you having the conversation? What is it that you’re trying to achieve? By sharing this at the start, it’s a great way to quickly unite everyone towards the common goal.


The what and the how

These two outline the things or actions that need to happen to achieve the ‘why’.

To avoid anyone making any assumptions, you should outline clearly how you think your goal should be achieved, making sure they are specific and actionable. This clarity will not only make it easier for your request to be received, but you’ll be increasing the chance of their ‘buy in’ as they’ll have confidence in how it can be done. It doesn’t leave any doubt or questions in their mind.


Active Listening

Active listening is another key part in communicating, and even though this is about how to say no, listening is an important part of the conversation.


Active listening goes hand in hand with empathy. It’s not just listening to what is being said but actively trying to understand and seeing things from their point of view. It’s the bedrock of strong, positive relationships – which are so important in any working environment – and helps boost communication and reduces the risks of conflict. Which is exactly what you need when you’re trying to raise a difficult topic.


Active listening involves giving the other person your full attention, maintaining steady eye contact, and acknowledging their points and reflecting back what they’re saying. It helps you to fully immerse yourself in the conversation and will help build rapport and ensure the other person feels validated and heard.


Explore further: What are active listening skills?


Challenge constructively

Now, tie all these skills together.


If you want to say ‘no’ make sure that you explain why in a constructive manner. As we said at the beginning, prepare for the conversation – make sure you are clear on exactly why you are saying no, and that you have points to back it up. This will help you to form a balanced, informed and clear argument that will help the other person understand where you’re coming from.


But don’t forget your listening skills too. Allow them to counter-argue and listen to what they say and try to understand their argument from their point of view, even if it’s not what you want to hear. In fact, especially if it isn’t what you want to hear – it’ll help you keep a clear(er) head, which is what you need if you’re going to come to a mutual agreement.


Other skills that can help

Dealing with stressful situations

If you have excessive workloads and feel a lack of control – or are experiencing any of the top 10 causes of stress – finding ways to deal with the situations can help bring control back into your work life.

Course: Dealing with stressful situations


It can be daunting to stand up to your manager, say no and find a way of setting boundaries, but working on your confidence can help do that. And though it can feel like it, confidence isn’t something you have or you don’t have, it can be developed.

Course: Confidence-building techniques

Reflection techniques

If you need help in clarifying your arguments, then reflection techniques will help you go a long way. They will help you reflect on your situation, discover what needs to be done, how you can make improvements, and understand why you might be unhappy. All in all, they’ll help you construct your argument and bring clarity to what you’re doing.

Course: Reflective techniques


You may have come up with a great argument, but your manager might want to push back. This is where negotiating skills come in handy. It’s an important part of achieving an agreed outcome, without feeling you’ve given in.

Course: Influencing, negotiation and networking

Time Management

Time management can help workloads seem more manageable. If you think you’re overworked, this could be a first port of call. But if you try to manage your time and you still can’t find a way forward, then using this as evidence will help strengthen your ‘no’.

Course: Time management

Guide: A Guide to Time Management


Have you been inspired to learn more? Check out our full personal and professional development catalogue to see what else we have on offer.

Thank you to Champion Health for their guidance around potential strategies and techniques that employers can implement to support the holistic wellbeing of their colleagues and employees.