Real Careers: On Saying No (3)

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” to people 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 third in this series.


Juliana Carneiro, The Netherlands: I do it (say “no”) quite often. I make the “why” very clear as well; either I don’t have the time or I don’t think I should be doing it. If they need help I will always help, but won’t do the task for my colleagues.

Lorna Cowan, Northern Ireland: When I first started working as a PA, I found it difficult to say no and often felt overwhelmed with the workload. Now I’m better at prioritising, assessing what’s urgent and time sensitive, knowing when to delegate and when it’s appropriate to say no. I always ask for clear guidelines on requests and deadlines; this helps me to understand the task and manage other peoples’ expectations. It also stops me from becoming overwhelmed and allows me to deliver what is required.

Sherri Eckworth, England: …  I do sometimes have to say no. Firstly I’ll always listen to what I’m being asked for and then try to find another way of helping – that might be putting the person in contact with someone else or, if not time critical, offering to help another time. Occasionally I have to suggest politely that they try to do it themselves – always tactfully, though, and appreciating their workloads.


Chantalle Freeborough, Canada: Saying no to people is hard, but I’ve learned it is better to under promise than to not deliver!  EAs are notorious for saying yes when they feel the answer should probably be no. Then they just magically make it happen. But that “magic’” includes putting added stress on themselves.

Often, if a coworker asks me for something, I ask questions about the urgency and deadline so that I can decide if I have the time to devote to their request. If I have two or three time sensitive projects that need to be completed first, I make sure they are aware of what I’m working on and that I cannot guarantee I’ll have their request fulfilled within their timeline. I promise to try; I don’t provide a guarantee.

Anel Martin, South Africa: It really was hard for me to learn how to say “no”, I always felt selfish or like a bad person when I did so. That was until someone told me that, every time I do a favour for someone, I am actually firstly taking time away from what my manager needs done or away from my family. This perspective helped me to take charge and question what I was sacrificing to be able to say yes all the time.

Paula Moio, England: It is important that we all understand that saying no is absolutely not being rude or unpleasant. The key is how you phrase it. People like to be comforted, so when I have to say no – and in my position that happens quite regularly – I will, where possible, either redirect the person or negotiate a due date and time.

I am committed to being supportive of my manager and her team with professional maturity. To have the perception to identify how, what, where and when they need my support is a skill I seek to refine. In a large team like mine, it is quite unlikely that I would be able to support everyone at once. But it is also important that I am clear about how to negotiate that same support and manage our mutual expectations realistically and honestly.


Dalya PerryBernstein, England: If by “people” you are referring to my CEO, he has never given me a task which is unacceptable or something I feel I need to say no to. He respects my opinion so if I feel something is unrealistic or I can perhaps offer an idea, I will happily express my opinion or offer a more realistic option. I feel if you are going to work closely with someone, you should be able to express your opinion with confidence. It is important for that person to know your personality and value your opinion.

Christabell Pinchin, Canada: “No” was not in my vocabulary early in my career. The past few years I have learned to say “no”. I want to help and be accommodating, but by saying yes to everybody, you are spread too thin and you can’t do your best work. My advice for others is to start small.  Learn to say “No, but …” For example. “No, I do not have the time to help write that report, but I would be able to find a bit of time to do a final proof for you if that would be helpful.”

John D. Shaw, USA: Unfortunately, supporting any CEO means occasionally having to say “no.” The reality is that my principal cannot be everywhere at all times. Although it’s not easy to have to prioritise competing requests, I always aim to set realistic expectations and offer empathetic regrets when I have to.


Marcela Silva da Conceição Brito, Brazil: In my first job, I was afraid of everything and everyone. I remember that I really wanted to do my best and not make any mistakes, so I did not know to say “no”.

Time heals almost everything, and it is the best teacher people could have. I have learned that my competence and the way people must see me as an exceptional executive assistant are not related to the numbers of times I could say, “yes”.

Instead, they have to understand that I am committed first to my priorities in the role. So, nowadays I never say “no” directly, but I ask a person about his/her priority related to the request. If it is urgent, I explain that I am also working on an important matter for the office or for my boss and, unfortunately, I will decline. Then I give him/her options, indicating someone who can help him/her. I learned to understand that people do not want your “yes” all the time, but that they really need your help. If you help them, you will fulfill your mission.

Louise Whitehead, England: I rarely say no. Unless I absolutely have to, I will always try to make the time to help with whatever is asked of me. What I do try to do is manage expectations of when I can deliver something and ensure deadlines are clearly communicated.

Catherine Williamson, England: I will try and be as helpful as I can be, but ultimately I need to think of what’s best for the Bishop. In terms of visits to parishes, the Bishop and I like to be as strategic as possible, so we encourage planned visits, but of course there are the ad-hoc services that need to be put into a packed diary. I need to be sure that the Bishop can get where he needs to be, but also that he has time in the office and time to rest and be with his family. So I will say no, and sometimes that’s to the Bishop, too!

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