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You Can Say “No” in Business



This article was originally published in the Tribune-Star on October 7, 2017.

Whether you are an entrepreneur, want to be one or not, we have all had those days of splitting headaches, not enough hours in the day and when the word “no” does not appear in our vocabulary. At what point did that word decide to take a vacation, go get a tan and lay on the beach? As life becomes much more demanding, requests for our time continue to pile up and we cannot find enough hours in the day to do the things we want to do — yet we still say yes to new requests.

Perhaps we are people pleasers and hate to disappoint others. Ultimately, what happens is our health is impacted; our credibility and effectiveness are negatively impacted as we are not able to deliver on what we promised. In essence, we over promise and under deliver! That in and of itself is a bad business practice and will create a monumental marketing issue of a poor reputation and work ethic.

Saying yes too often is an ineffective strategy, but saying no poorly by attacking the requestor or by avoiding the response is also a bad strategy. Both instances make a bad and difficult situation worse, leading to guilt or possibly an accommodation.

Managing expectation is a delicate balance and requires being accountable for all commitments. Consider identifying the following aspects to guide you to hone your skills in setting boundaries for your organization and  accommodate for a workload while still accepting new opportunities.

  1. Decide on boundaries, establish and honor the boundaries for others to see. Let your constituents know your priorities and limits. Don’t continually break your own rules about when you are available or what requests are acceptable. Your actions must match your words, so don’t say yes when you mean no.
  2. Set aside time to check your calendar. It’s an acceptable business practice to review your schedule or converse with other principals before committing to an answer. Don’t respond with a quick yes that you can’t deliver, or a quick no that will ruin a relationship. In all cases, it’s important to commit to a date or time for a final yes or no.
  3. Listen to your gut instinct; it has value. Recognize that your brain and your body often register information that is more accurate than an optimistic emotional reaction, or a negative reaction after a long hard day. Take a deep breath, clear your mind of any external distractions, and analyze your gut reaction before providing an answer.
  4. State the pros and cons with someone you trust. Speaking the considerations out loud will help you make sure you understand the full implications of either a yes or a no answer. Every yes answer increases your workload and every no answer may cut off an opportunity you need down the road. Talking it out also buys you time.
  5. Is there a need for a favor in return? This will help the requester understand the impact of the request, and potentially reconsider. In other cases, you may actually get back more than you give up. Every yes should be a win-win proposition, just like strategic partnerships can bring huge growth to both businesses, despite the work.
  6. What are your constraints before saying no? Rejection without giving context implies an unreasonable request or a problem with the requestor. People making a request may not understand your budget limitations, current workload or competitive pressures. In this context, you can also make an encouraging statement about future requests.
  7. Say yes to the individual but no to the task. Make sure the requestor understands first how positively you feel about them, despite the fact that the requested task cannot be accommodated in your current workload, strategy or other boundary. Requestors are then less likely to be left with the impression that your rejection is a personal affront.
  8. The sandwich philosophy. Yes – no – yes. Make your answer more palatable with a positive explanation. For example, if your partner asks you to cover a conference, but you have development deadlines at risk, explain these commitments (first yes), how they lock you in town (no), and finish by confirming your focus to an on-time product (second yes).
  9. Create or state the decision in a friendly environment. Ask for the opportunity to discuss the request when you can give the requestor your full attention. When you are in the normal chaos of the startup day, both parties can be easily misinterpreted. Pay attention to body language and tone that often make the negative response more difficult to receive.
  10. Be nice about the decision and non-hostile. Remember it is the task and not the person. No one wins when a requestor reads your softly spoken no as a yes or a maybe. Long, detailed explanations are usually read as defensive or confrontational. The answer should be strong and non-emotional. Just say no clearly, and smile as you say it.

You don’t have to be viewed as a yes person to be viewed as a leader. In fact, if you look at the leaders around you, they are not afraid to say no to the conventional wisdom, and they gain respect for doing it. They have learned the art of saying no with the same conviction and passion they use in saying yes. That’s the best way to change the world and save yourself, so start today.

Heather Strohm is a community development regional educator for the Southwest Region of Purdue University Extension who regularly contributes a Business Cents column for the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at

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