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The Liberation of Setting Boundaries

How to say no with tact and grace


by Kara Baskin

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Saying no can be difficult when you work for yourself—and even when you work for someone else. You don’t want to disappoint anyone. You don’t want to turn down work, if you need the money. You don’t want to offend or come off as uncooperative. So you take on more and more, until your calendar looks like a game of Tetris gone mad. Why is it so hard to set boundaries, and what can we do about it?

Harvard-trained therapist Jessica Slavin Connelly says that many workers often fall into the trap of thinking that saying “no” simply isn’t an option. “Often, [the guilt] is about our own-self worth, about what we feel we should be capable of or were capable at one point,” she says—expectations that might not align with reality. “Setting boundaries is not weak,” she says. She asks me if someone has said “no” to me recently. Yes, I admit. And was I mad? I have to confess that I wasn’t. If anything, I respected the person more. Connelly agrees.

The trick, she says, is to say no with tact and diplomacy.

1. Say no politely but don’t offer further explanation. “Leave it at a simple ‘no.’ A lot of people feel explanation is required, but this is more for us than for the other person,” she says. Offering too much explanation might leave openings for negotiation, and you’re back to square one.

2. Convey the “positive intention” of saying no. Often it helps to say, “I wish I could do this, but I can’t.” Make it clear that you do want to help the other person and that your decline isn’t coming from a place of malice. 

3. Understand that saying “no” might actually help the other person in the long run. “By saying no, you’re benefiting the other person by setting boundaries. If you take on something you can’t do, it might fall through,” she says. Better to decline upfront than disappoint someone later.

4. Remember that life will go on. “Think of it this way: Would you come to work with the stomach flu? No. Nobody wants you there, and work will go on. It’s the same with declining something you can’t do,” she says. 

5. Tailor the no, if need be. For instance, if you’re dealing with a long-time needy client for whom you’ve always been available, it’s possible to redraw the lines. “Say, ‘My situation has changed. I want to own the fact that I might not have been clear about this, but at this time I’m not available. However, I am available to do x, y and z.”

6. Use no as leverage, if possible. If you’re being asked to do things beyond your job description and find yourself regularly wanting to say no, it might be time to renegotiate your work agreement—and angle for more money.

7. Stop the guilt. “If you’re declining for professional, job-appropriate reasons, what are you worried about? If you’ve always done a good job, you shouldn’t be worried about getting fired. And if you’re worried that your client or employer is building a case against you, this isn’t healthy,” she says. Those warning signs might be a cue to look for work where you feel more comfortable saying yes.

Photo Credit: Henrik Sorensen/Getty