Struggling with saying no

Struggling with saying no

Assertiveness ain't an easy trait to nail. Well-developed, it's a game-changer, bringing clarity and getting stuff done. However, if you overshoot or go overboard using it to mask shady intentions, it can quickly become a double-edged sword. It's definitely true in work environments. Learning to say no when you need to is a mark of senior-level maturity, even for the small stuff. If you however feel like you sometimes find yourself being a yes-man, struggling to speak up or maybe being taken advantage of - let's check why that may be the case.

Saying no will always be tougher

Replying negatively to a question, favour or ask will always create more tension than just going with the flow. Always. No matter how much you practice, or how many times you realise that you are already stretched enough, that guilt always sticks around when you turn down requests. But feeling guilty doesn't mean it was the wrong call. Sometimes, you have to embrace the discomfort and push through chasing what's right, not what feels nice. Diving into discomfort can be a sign of strength, not weakness.

Being a Super-Helper

The Super-Helper Syndrome was coined as a common name quite recently, by the book of Jess Baker and Rod Vincent under the same title. If you're into details, I really recommend the read. Cutting to the chase - some people love the feeling of being needed. Being regularly asked for help by team members and leaders may be associated with a feeling irreplaceable. It can be true, but affirming that every other favour is gonna create a perfect ground for toxic workplace favouritism. Sure, being helpful is important, but self-awareness matters more. Check yourself if you're falling into that trap. If so, be sure that your value & worth is not measured by how much work you can take off your colleagues' plates. Teamwork's vital, but it's gotta be a two-way street.


Looking back it was the one I struggled the most so far. It's also not unique to a work environment. Picture this: a very nice chat in the kitchen, but you're stuck finishing a report you promised to deliver. Or maybe there is a cool tech meet-up in the evening, clashing with a game you wanted to watch or the gym go-ou after work. Life's trade-offs, huh? But I won't lecture about work-life balance. Let's focus on the work itself.

Fear of missing out messes with work too. You can't juggle all the requests you're getting without burning out. If you happen to work at a bigger corporation, you can't take part in all the initiatives your HR department comes up with and then expect to continue delivering high-quality work and keep on growing professionally. The trick is variety. These aren't commitments carved in stone, they're more like a river that will keep on flowing. Skipping one hangout won't make you a socially excluded loner. Declining one of the training will not put you behind your colleague's skills. Saying no to a task that your team member wants you to take a glance at today will not make him your lifelong enemy. Think long-term.

It's not about being polite

From a young age, we're taught to help when we can and refusing is impolite without good enough reason. That's great outside work, but in the modern workplace, the sad truth is that some folks manipulate this to guilt-trip others. They paint a picture of the one refusing to help as heartless, cold-blooded or a selfish coworker. They may not tell that about you, but certainly about some other guy, just to draw a connection in your mind that this is how refusing to help will be perceived in this company. No one wants to be seen as an outcast, getting you exposed for such manipulative play.

The best line of awareness and defence for such moves is understanding that assertiveness and politeness are not polar opposites. Paul Wadey has done a tremendous job in his paper, where he took a scientific approach to exploring interaction, historical interpretation and influence of ethnic background in those two domains. Highly recommend a read of his blog.

Challenging the myth of polite assertiveness can help individuals deconstruct the rigid norms and expectations surrounding communication, allowing for more flexible and adaptive communication styles that better align with diverse interpersonal contexts.

Paul Wadey, The Myth of Polite Assertiveness

Without scientific vocabulary, however being direct, truthful and assertive is not impolite. It makes you effective, mature, and self-conscious. If the other side cannot comprehend that, don't worry about that. In most cases, the goal is not about winning a popularity contest at your company. The badge of being reliable, high quality and focused will get you much further in the long run. This is not a permit to be a complete jerk at your workplace, so work on your language & communication skills to make sure you strike the tone of responses right.

The Competitive Factor

Some more, some less, but we humans are competitive creatures. Part of it is set in our primal DNA, sometimes enhanced by personal character traits. We compare ourselves against those around us. By itself, that's not a bad thing, but uncontrolled can lead to very false conclusions. It's a great move to look at others for inspiration and learning, but you can't combine all the skills of people around you. You can't out-pace everyone at once.

There will always be someone who at the moment is pushing a bit harder. Doing overtime, going through some courses in my free time, and accepting additional requests and initiatives. Organisations also adore glorifying this behaviour as this is what we need. Seeing this you may be tempted to follow one's success and push much harder than you are comfortable with. However much better option is to remain yourself. Set your own standards, goals and metrics that you will measure yourself. Keep on pushing, but at your own pace and direction. The best way to overcome that feeling is to have your own personal plan. While working on it get inspired by the stories of your colleagues but make sure its goal reflects your desires.

Don't make it about ego

Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it but don't swallow it.

~Hank Ketcham

Flattery is one of the easiest and most common manipulation techniques you'll encounter in the workplace. While it's undeniably pleasant to receive a compliment now and then, we've got to watch out for those who only aim to stroke your ego with flattering words just to offload their work onto you. Phrases like: You'll do that so much better than me. No one can plan the project so meticulously as you do. are just the most obvious ones from the charming tales. Compliments will always feel good, but you have to consider the long run. If you constantly say yes to such requests without doing yourself any favours by occasionally saying no, it may hinder your personal development.