Real Careers: On Saying No (2)

This month, we’re celebrating admin. professionals’ accomplishments and workplace strategies. 

… and this week, we’re looking at where some of our Real Careers alumni stand on using the word “no” in the workplace. While some find it difficult or inappropriate to say no to requests in the office, many have a different view. Here’s the second in this series.

Menekşe Ahbab, Turkey: Well, that’s a challenge most of the time. It doesn’t matter how hard it is, this is part of our job. “No” is a very negative and, in some cases, irritating word; I try not to use it very often. In my experience, saying “no” in a “yes” manner is important.

Filiz Yurttaşer, Turkey: I totally agree with Menekşe (Ahbab). As executive assistants, we need to keep our positive attitude even if the answer is “No”.

Diana, Germany: When I was younger, I found it much tougher to say “no”, but nowadays I feel more confident in doing so. Since I am working for two bosses plus running my own little department, I have every reason to say “no” for any additional task I might get asked to take on. However, simply saying “no” is too ordinary, so I try to give a recommendation; my refusal consists of referring the person to someone else who might be able to help instead of me. This makes the “no” less harsh.


Maria Gottberg, Sweden: I always try to help where I can and those I work with know that’s a fact. If I say no, it’s because I can not help them; I have no hidden agenda, and they know it.

Leeanne Graham, England: It’s how you say no that counts. If I can offer a solution along with the no, then I do. Sometimes it can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry; I can’t get to that right now, but can I come back to you a little later once I have got A, B and C out of the way?” In our busy roles, people can often get offended by the word no, but my biggest tip is to stay professional in the face of other peoples’ grumpiness and give as full as possible an explanation. My favourite line is, “How you behave is your problem, but how I respond to that behaviour is mine.”

Debbie Grimwood, England: This is my biggest weakness, but you can’t do everything and I’d rather do a job properly than overload myself. So, I politely say, “I am happy to help but, if you have a deadline, please understand that at the moment I have other priorities and so it will have to wait.”


Florence Katono, Uganda: First, I have made every member of our team a friend. When I say no to them, they understand that I am not able to help at the time. I have also learnt to be firm in my decision. One of my mentors, Mrs. Winnie Bisamaza, taught me to be straightforward with people. She says one should only say yes when they can help; it’s frustrating to give a green light, only for the other person to later discover you meant a red one.

MistiLynn Lokken, USA: I try not to say “no” whenever possible. If I am not able to help someone, I work to provide them options in moving forward rather than just declining. Being helpful sometimes means directing them on how to resolve an issue rather than it always being me to resolve it.

Cindy Moeser, Canada: I typically will not say “no” to my executives but instead suggest alternatives. If I know that I do not have time, or if the request is best suited for another staff member, I will suggest this solution and then follow up to make sure it has been completed. When it comes to everyone else in the office, I typically say “no” if I need to devote my time to projects for my executives. Instead, I will offer ideas if I have completed a similar task in the past and make sure they know I am available for questions. As an EA, this can be a tough thing to master, and in the past, I have not been able to say no. You are an extension of your executives, so of course you do not want to appear unhelpful. But if a request is going to impact your executives’ deadlines, saying “no” is a must.


Catherine Thomas, Wales: I have learnt over the years that, if you are honest and tell people that you aren’t able to do their work immediately but you will be able to do it within a suitable time frame, people respect your honesty. I find that, in most cases, that urgent piece of work doesn’t become quite so urgent when they realise you can’t drop everything – and in the majority of cases, they either find another method or do it themselves.

Barbra Unger, Canada: Saying no is something I struggled with, so my executive coached me early on in my role that it’s okay to say no, especially when the request does not immediately support where my focus should be. I enjoy supporting and helping others, yet when I determine that I need to say “no”, I say it respectfully, along with providing resources and potential solutions that the individual can take away to complete it themselves, or within their team. Many times people ask you to do something as you have shown you are capable of such; yet there are others who are also capable and would welcome the opportunity to show it. Saying  “no” allows someone else the opportunity to shine.

Teri Wells, South Africa: I used to always say “yes” and it almost brought me to my knees with exhaustion and frustration at never being on top of everything. I tendered my resignation (about 10 years in to my 21 year service) because I felt I was drowning. My bosses were mortified and immediately offered all and any assistance I needed. It was then that I realised that I had to speak up. It was their job to support me as much as it was mine to support them.

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