The Working With… Podcast

How To Say “No” Without Upsetting People.

February 3, 2020

This week’ it’s all about saying “no” to new opportunities and interrupting colleagues.



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Episode 118

Hello and welcome to episode 118 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

One of the hardest things for me is to say “no” to new opportunities. There’s a little voice inside me that says this could be the one that will take me to the next level or if I say no to this, this person will be very disappointed and upset. Then I end up resenting that person for putting me in this situation in the first place. 

While we may have developed a fantastic productivity system, being unable to say “no” can put a drag on anyone’s ability to get the important things done. 

Now, before we get to this week’s question and answer, I'd like to let you know I have been hard at work developing a brand new course. This course, How to Build your own Daily Workflow is a result of all the things I have learned from my coaching practice about where people struggle with getting their work done and how to build a structure into your life so you stay on top of everything going on in your life. 

The course will show you how to develop your own daily workflow so you stay focused on what you have decided is important while at the same time managing your regular routine work. 

So if you are looking for a way to stay on top of everything coming your way as well as have the time to develop your goals and side projects have a look at the course. This is one course that will help to reduce your stress and overwhelm by giving you a solid structure to your day. You will be able to find the details for the course in the show notes. 

Okay, it’s time for me now to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from Joshua. Joshua asks, hi Carl, I am having real problems turning down my colleagues’ requests. They are always interrupting me and asking me to help them but I have my own work to do. I don't want to upset them or cause any problems in the office. Do you have any strategies for dealing with these kinds of interruptions? 

Great question, Joshua. Thank you for sending it in. I know you are not alone with this difficulty. As human beings, we are hard-wired not to disappoint. So we find it difficult

To say no to requests. This is why I have always envied people who have those gatekeepers—assistants employed to say “no” for you—I’ve seen those tv shows where the hero shouts “cancel my appointments this afternoon!” Or “Clear my diary for the rest of the week!—oh how easy that sounds. Not having to deal with people’s disappointment. Not having to tell someone you cannot make your commitment etc. 

But for most of us, we don't have the luxury of having an assistant to say “no” for us. For the rest of us, we have to say “no” ourselves. So how can we do that without feeling guilty? 

One thing you can do is set up some boundaries. What is important to you? If, for example having dinner with your family every evening is important to you, then create a boundary around that time. Make it non-negotiable. If, say, you tell people that between 6:30pm and 8pm you always have dinner with your family and you make that non-negotiable, pretty soon the people you come into contact with regularly will learn your habits and will not interrupt you. 

Part of making saying no easier is being consistent. An example for me is Friday afternoons. Friday afternoons is when I record my YouTube videos and so between 1pm and 4pm on a Friday is non-negotiable. I occasionally have a language student ask to rearrange their class for a Friday afternoon. Almost as soon as the “f” of Friday comes out of their mouth I have already apologised and said no. Friday afternoons are non-negotiable and any opportunity I get, I tell people that. 

One of the reasons we feel saying no is so difficult is because we think by saying no to someone they will be stuck without our help. The truth is likely to be a lot less dramatic. If we cannot help, there is always going to be someone else who can help them. And that someone else may have a lot more time than we do, so you are doing the person asking a huge favour. If you say yes to something and are not totally committed to the task at hand, would you say that is being fair?

One of the easiest ways I’ve found to say “no” is to tell someone I don’t have time. I only use this when that is true, of course. This week, for example, I am putting the finishing touches to my new course, I am preparing a video for a webinar I’m invited to speak at and I am in the process of making some minor changes to the way I record my YouTube videos. When I look at my calendar for the week, I can see very quickly I do not have a great deal of spare time. So, if someone asks me if I can teach an extra class, do an extra call or write an article for them, I know this week is not going to be possible. Instead, I will offer an alternative—say in two or three weeks time. If the person asking agrees, then I can schedule that. 

And that is where you can really help yourself. Often, because we find it so difficult to say no, we say yes just to get out of a difficult situation. Then when we stop, look at our calendars, we discover there is no time to fit that extra task in. This is one of the reasons I tell people their calendar is their most powerful weapon. It does not lie. It shows you very clearly where you are committed and how much spare time you have available. Use it. It will help to stop you from over-committing yourself. 

Okay, so those are some of the foundations you can use to make sure you are not over-committed. How can you deal with those interruptions that come your way in your workplace? 

Okay, the first one is a simple one. Use headphones. Whenever you do not want to be disturbed, put on a pair of headphones. Even if you are not listening to anything. When people see you with a pair of headphones on they are less likely to interrupt you. This is because to get your attention, they are going to have to move out from their own workspace and come over to you and tap you on the shoulder instead of calling out across the room. When you have a pair of headphones on you are conveying a subtle message not to disturb you. I’ve found this one works all the time. It takes a very brave soul to interrupt someone wearing headphones. 

Now, if you really need to carve out some deep work time, you are going to have to be more intentional. Whenever I need uninterrupted time to work on something, I will always go find a quiet place to do it. These days, most offices have meeting rooms and if you can, try to use one for your uninterrupted deep work sessions. Like using headphones while sat at your desk, when a person sees you in a room working with the door closed, they are unlikely to interrupt you unless it is really important. When you do this, I would always tell your colleagues you need a couple of hours to work on something uninterrupted. People, when asked to leave you alone, are very accommodating. A lot of time people interrupt us because we appear open to interruption. If we tell people we need some quiet time to get on with our most important work, they are much more likely to respect that and leave you alone. 

Now how do you handle a person who is being insistent? Here you are just going to have to be honest. This is the hardest and it’s even more difficult if the person insisting is your boss or an important client. In these situations, you are going to have to make a decision based on priorities and values. 

Priorities because sometimes the work you are currently working on has an imminent deadline and you just have to finish that first. And values because we all have values that have a greater priority over anything else. Greg McKeown, author of the book Essentialism tells the story of when his wife was expecting his first child. A colleague told him that if his wife gave birth on Friday it would be very inconvenient because he was needed at an important meeting. As fate would have it, his wife did give birth on the Friday and he did attend the meeting. It was then he realised that there are some things in life where you just have to say no because something else—based on your values—has a much higher priority. For me, family is the highest priority. 

Other areas where my values take priority is my exercise time. I know how important exercise is to my overall health and wellbeing. When I am not exercising, my work suffers. So, I say no to appointments between 2pm and 3pm, unless I can schedule my exercise time at another time that day or I am doing a two or three-day workshop. In those situations, because I am on my feet teaching all day, I count that as exercise. I know, I am lucky, I have control over my day and how I spend it, but that does not mean I can say no to everything, I do have clients, some very important clients and I cannot always say not to them. But I can negotiate times with them.

Finally, there is the “I’m a bit busy at the moment, can you come back later?” Response. This works on a lot of different levels. Firstly, anyone attempting to interrupt you will generally respect your time, and secondly, in most cases, the person will find the answer to their problem without having to come back and bother you again. It also teaches people that you can and will say no occasionally when you need to. 

Ultimately, the art of saying no is something that needs practice. It will always be hard to do it, but developing a few strategies, having a few boundaries that your colleagues, customers and bosses understand and being consistent and honest with people will make it easier. Remember, whenever you do say yes to something you are also saying no to something else. It’s far better to say yes to the things you want to do than to say no to those and yes to things you do not want to do.

Good luck, Joshua. I know it will be hard, but try some of these tips and find the ones that work best for you. Thank you for your question and thank you to all of you for listening. 

Don’t forget, if you have a question toy would like answering, then just email me at or you can DM me on Facebook or Twitter. All the links are in the show notes. 

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.