At some point in our busy careers we’ll all have to say “no” (or “not now”) to something that someone else wants us to do. How will you handle this situation? Is it possible to say “no”, but in a way that does not burn bridges? We all have to prioritize and look out for our schedules and how we manage and spend our time. If we don’t proactively manage our workload and time, others will manage it for us and not always in ways that help our careers.

It’s important to be strategic with how you respond to requests for your precious time. A too quick response with little forethought might damage your career in subtle ways; however, I think there are some strategies that can help us effectively navigate many of these tricky situations and look out for our own interests, too.

Before getting to some potential specific responses, it’s important to step back and ask ourselves the following questions (the answers to which will help guide our responses and ensure we don’t make a decision we’ll later regret):

  • Why are you tempted to say “no”? Is it because you have too much on your plate? Or, do you have a lack of interest in or motivation to do the task? Is it possible you don’t like the person making the request and simply don’t want to help him/her out? Becoming clear on what your immediate “gut” reaction is can help determine an appropriate response. This is part of emotional intelligence – knowing yourself and why you have a given reaction to a situation. We might find that saying “no” may cause us to miss an opportunity that could have been beneficial to our careers, or damage an important relationship. If the person making the request is senior in authority to you, this can be a really difficult situation. There are times when we just have to accept the request or assignment and make it happen.
  • A second consideration is to ask yourself why the request is coming to you. Is it because you are dependable, have unique knowledge or skills, have done it before and can do it efficiently or is it because you happen to be the first person they see? Finding out “why me” can also help determine the best response. Think about your longer term career goals and how a given request might benefit those goals. Below I share a way to ask this delicate question.
  • A third thing to think about is who is making the request. As mentioned above, we may not have a lot of options if we’re being told to do something by someone in authority. It also could be advantageous to respond positively if the person making the request is someone with whom we want to establish a stronger relationship or build our credibility.

Admittedly, in my suggestions below, we’re saying “yes” more often than “no”, but we’re doing it in a way that buys us some wiggle room and flexibility, and perhaps more control in how something gets done, as well as a better understanding of why we’ve been tapped.

  • Before saying “yes” or “no”, be willing to ask “why me”? As mentioned above, it’s important to understand the reasoning behind your name being associated with a given request. In some cases, it may be obvious, but in others less so. Tact becomes important with this question. You don’t want to come across as whining – but rather as sincerely seeking to understand why you were chosen. A possible way to ask this delicately: “I’m sure there are others who could be asked to do this, but you came to me. Is there a particular contribution (or value-add) you’re looking for from me?” The response to this question may help you determine which approach you use below.
  • Ask where the request should fit in your priorities and negotiate a deliverable date. With this approach you’re saying you can do it, but with a recognition that it may not happen as quickly as the other person expects. To help the other person better understand your circumstances, you can review your top priorities and ask where they see this fitting in. The response might be: “Yes, I can do that; however, I might need some help rearranging my priorities (which are…). Can you help me understand the urgency and timing so we can figure out how best to get this done?”
  • Suggest an alternative (or additional) resources. Another possibility is suggesting a different resource, with two possible approaches: Someone works under your guidance. The response might be something like this: “Sure, I can do that, and may I suggest that we get Bill involved to take on the primary role with me providing some guidance? Would that be OK?” Through this approach you can not only delegate the task, but also allow someone else to get exposure or experience that might be helpful to him/her. It also might put you into a good coaching role that builds your leadership skills. Delegate completely: In this situation you’re deflecting and providing an alternative: “As much as I would love to help, I really can’t right now (due to the following reasons…). However, might I suggest Bill as a resource? I think he’d like the opportunity and would be willing to do this.”
  • Say “yes”, and suggest a due date that fits with your schedule. Once you’ve said “yes”, then you may have more control over the delivery date than you think. The person may be so relieved you’re willing to help they’ll accept whatever terms you suggest: “Yes, I will do it. I’ll plan to have a draft ready by the end of next week. I hope that’s OK?”
  • Delay your response. This is a tricky one. A delay may cause the requester to go to someone else in the meantime, which can be a good thing because we didn’t directly have to say “no”. On the other hand, we could lose credibility if we promise to get back to the person and don’t do so. A delay response might look like: “Can I get back to you? I’m in the middle of something and need to check my calendar (or schedule).”
  • Say “no” and be willing to help find another resource. If you absolutely cannot do it, then you might simply have to say so: “I’m sorry, I can’t do this. However, I’d be happy to help you consider alternative resources if you’d like.” This tactic is probably underutilized and should be considered more often. A straightforward “no” response with a willingness to help in some other way might be exactly the best strategy, particularly if the request provides little, if any benefit to you.

Of course, the worst approach is to say “yes” and fail to deliver. This is a passive-aggressive response where you’ve (probably reluctantly) said you’ll do something with little intention of completing the task. If you want to undermine trust and others’ confidence in you, this is one of the fastest ways to do it.

Look at every opportunity or request that comes your way in light of your career goals and interests. Focus on accepting and spending time on those requests that will provide you with the experiences, skills, visibility and relationships that will help you grow. This will mean that you have to occasionally say “no” (or “not now”) to other requests, but if handled gracefully, you’ll find yourself more focused on what will make the most difference in your career.