It's a problem many of us share: We tend to say yes when we mean to say no. This is the reason we get stuck chairing a committee or taking on projects we cannot handle.

Saying no is an important skill--not just for getting out of the things we don't want to do or don't have time for, but also for the times (hopefully rare) that we're asked to participate in something that's unethical or even illegal.

Learning how to stop saying yes when we want to say no depends on several factors: Are you responding personally or professionally? On behalf of your organization or yourself? Do you want the tone to be friendly, maybe even leaving the door open for a next time, or firm and unequivocal? Whatever form of no you choose, the important thing is that you say it and mean it.

Here are 17 smart ways to say no when you need to:

1. No.: The simple way. Just say it.

2. I don't do that. Or you can go with the corporate version and say it falls outside your organization's mission.

3. I've got to go with my intuition and say no. People can relate to following their gut, so it can be a nice way to say no that isn't confrontational. Another advantage is that there's no way to argue with intuition.

4. I wouldn't be comfortable with that. This allows you to give a reason that's principled and firm without getting specific or coming across as judgmental. It's understated and diplomatic.

5. That doesn't fit in with our current program. If you're speaking on behalf of your team or organization, an effective strategy is to deflect it away from yourself and onto something bigger--again, without specificity or judgment.

6. My team/boss/family would kill me if I did that. Fill in the blank. This approach carries some risk of making you seem intimidated and easily swayed by others, so it warrants careful use. But it has its place--for example, as a frequent response of old-school salespeople to low offers.

7. I can't afford it/It's not in the budget. Sometimes we're reluctant to talk about money, especially on a personal level. But there's nothing wrong with saying you can't afford something, and it can communicate valuable information, that the person may be asking for too great a commitment.

8. I can't fit it into my schedule. This is another case of saying "I can't afford it," only with time instead of money. It's best not to be too specific or you may enter into unwanted negotiations. You don't want to say "My Wednesday nights are already committed" only to have it countered with an offer to move the requested event to Monday.

9. It goes against my principles. When you want to make a strong statement, one that weighs in with disapproval as well as no, standing on principle is the way to go. And it's another abstract concept that can't be argued with. Just make sure there aren't any points of hypocrisy you can be called on.

10. I'm already overcommitted. Depending on the situation, pleading overcommitment may do more to delay a request than to turn it down. But if a short-term fix is all you need, it's a good one.

11. I need to check with legal. Sometimes policy or legal restraints hand you a perfect reason why you have to say no. It's worth a try, anyway.

12. I need to check with my team for consensus. Yet another way to deflect the issue onto something bigger than you and outside your control.

13. My predecessor was fired for doing that. This is hardball. You're not only saying no and taking a hard stand, you're cautioning the person that he or she is in dangerous territory. You're also communicating a message about the kind of behavior your organization won't tolerate.

14. I was once fired for doing that. Here's the same hardball mix as "My predecessor was fired ... " with an extra wallop of personal candor. There aren't many people who can pull this one off, but if you do, I'm guessing the other party will be literally stunned into silence.

15. Nope! In the right situation, a slang refusal can maintain a casual but nonnegotiable tone.

16. No way. You can play this as a simple and direct response or, depending on how your tone and gestures play out, bring some drama and make it almost a dare.

17. You've got this. The most affirming way of saying no is to express confidence that your help isn't really needed at all.

There are endless variations. You can soften the no without changing your mind by offering ideas about others who may be able to help or alternative solutions to the problem. You can offer to help the next time. Or you can walk away, content in having protected the things that are most important to you by not taking on something you don't need or want.

Published on: Mar 23, 2017
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