Learning to say no: the four Ds


Saying no doesn’t have to be negative. Find out how to refuse with grace and professionalism.

We’re hard-wired from childhood to say yes to others, particularly with senior ‘parent-type’ authorities. But sometimes “no” is an entirely legitimate response, says everywoman associate Pippa Isbell in our webinar ‘ Setting boundaries: Learning to say no’.

If you’re struggling with work spilling into home life or frequent interruptions derailing your best intentions (the two major concerns for an even 37% each of Network members), an ever-expanding to-do list (14%) or being asked to complete tasks which require knowledge beyond your skillset (12%), ‘the four Ds’ are your starting point for beginning – respectfully and appropriately – to say “no”.


Define your boundaries

‘We all know someone in the office who manages a run around the park at lunch, or clocks off on the dot without feeling guilty,’ says Pippa Isbell. Those individuals have taken the time to clearly define their values.

Whether it’s having adequate time to spend with young children or an elderly parent, being able to get fresh air at lunchtime, or leaving at a time which enables you to get to the gym or a study class at least once a week, work out what your values are, and what those values imply you are and are not willing to do. Communicate those values to line managers, colleagues, friends or family members, and ensure they are respected – first and foremost by yourself.

Of course there will be exceptions to every rule – occasions when late night email exchanges with the boss are necessary or lunch breaks become a distant memory as deadline approaches, ‘but if you don’t have the rules in the first place,’ says Pippa, ‘everything is an exception’.

Train your brain to respond to requests by assessing how they align with your values. Ask yourself:

  • Do I understand why this needs to be done?
  • Do I have the time capacity for this assignment?
  • Can I re-prioritise or delegate to make time?
  • Will working on this harm my other projects?
  • Do I have the necessary skills to do this effectively?



Your clearly defined values are your litmus test for whether you can say “yes” or “no” to something. But life isn’t always that straightforward. So what about when “yes” feels like an affront to your values but “no” feels too strong?

That’s when “yes, but” is your friend and your ability to negotiate your strongest asset. ‘When you say “yes but”, you’re remaining open to taking on whatever it is you’re being asked to do, while also explaining why the current terms don’t work for you,’ says Pippa. With “yes, but” you’re not creating a full stop, but an ellipsis leading to a discussion about how the request can be reframed so that it works for both parties. That might mean a deadline is extended, additional resources are provided, or other priorities are reassessed in light of this curveball.



‘Do I have time for this?’ is arguably the foremost question you’ll ask yourself when faced with an unexpected request. If the answer is that you’re simply not sure, then there are time management issues which will need to be resolved before you can work out what the “but” of your “yes, but” really means.

Pippa Isbell suggests spending a minimum of one week documenting how your time is spent with the aim of working out your personal ‘time thieves’. Are you frequently interrupted? Does office chitchat get in the way of your focus? Are inbox alerts a repeat distraction?

Next, you’ll need to look at how you schedule. When you diarise meetings, make sure you also block out time beforehand for preparatory reading or thinking, and time afterwards for analysis, minute recording or follow up communications. Likewise with projects; schedule in your deadlines, but also the mini deliverables, thinking time and milestones that will move you along the journey to final delivery. If your intentions to get to an exercise class are thwarted by end of play meandering, you might need to diarise winding down and switching off.

Finally, get smarter with your to-do list. Pippa starts each morning with a self-explanatory ‘Must/Should/Could’ list to help inform the day’s priorities and focus points. ‘Don’t forget to review each day too,’ she says. ‘There’s huge satisfaction in knowing you’re effective.’

Once you’re on top of your diary, you can accurately assess whether you can take on more. But your “yes, but” needn’t always be about a calendar gap you’re willing to fill; it might be about manoeuvring some existing tasks out of your calendar via the good old fashioned art of delegation.

When trying to make room for curveballs, Pippa recommends running through your existing tasks and asking yourself the following question three times, each with a different emphasis: Why am I doing this?

When you ask ‘Why am I doing this?’ you’re really weighing up whether the task is business critical, linked to an objective or a firm commitment made, or whether it’s for now or could wait for later. ‘Why am I doing this?’ encourages you to evaluate the way in which you’re completing your task: why are you employing this specific method; is doing it the way you’ve always done it necessarily the best way? When you ask ‘Why am I doing this’ you’re attempting to find a trusted other to shoulder some or all of the responsibility.


Ditch the guilt

If you’re a newcomer to the planets “no” or “yes, but”, your newfound intentions might be clouded by guilt. After all, you like to please, and turning down a request for help flies in the face of your key values of accepting responsibility, helping others, and stretching yourself.

The root to overcoming guilt is to make a habit of negotiating your way around your values. Rehearse your mindset of using “yes, but” as a means to respecting your own needs while getting the job done in a way which works for both the requester and yourself too.

As US author John Maxwell said, you’re learning to ‘say “no” to the good so you can say “yes” to the best’.

Discover more ways to power up your relationships with senior figures in the everywomanNetwork workbook ‘Managing Upwards With Success’.



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