How to Say No Without Burning Bridges

by Monette Anderson | Mar 15, 2016
hand says no

Conventional wisdom for new professionals advises that to get to the top you should always be available to take on extra projects, to work harder than the person on your left and smarter than the person on your right. Working hard is an admirable quality and honoring one’s commitments is important—we’re not suggesting otherwise. But the reality is that no one can do it all, and everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. Personal responsibilities may vary from making extra time to study for your CPA exam, nurturing a hobby or passion, or caring for children or aging parents.

While only you can know what priorities truly matter in your life, here are some tips from the experts to help new professionals navigate the tricky domain of setting healthy boundaries while honoring their relationships and priorities.

Break the Addiction

If you have a tendency to make “yes” your default response, give yourself an intervention. For one whole week, try just making “no” your default response, or at least give yourself time to think seriously about it before jumping in. This will help you break your pattern of overcommitting. An easy way to ease into it is to say, “Let me get back to you on that.”

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Dr. Ned Hallowell has written 19 books on psychological topics and focuses on Entrepreneurial ADD in his book Why Smart People Underperform.  Dr. Hallowell likes to say that you need to cultivate your lilies, and get rid of leeches. Leeches in this analogy are the time suckers—the things you don’t care about that take away from your true priorities and goals. Lilies are the projects (or people) that are worth the time you put in. Part of this equation is knowing what your weekly, monthly and long-term goals are. Do some realistic goal setting, and be sure you are reviewing and adjusting those goals on a regular basis. If you need some guidelines for getting started check out this article. When approached with new projects or commitments, ask yourself if they are in line with your goals before committing.

Manage Expectations

If asked to take on an extra project that may overload you, it’s okay to ask your supervisor what you should prioritize. Responding, “Hey, I’m spending a lot of time on the big audit, do you want me to prioritize this instead?” may serve to remind your boss of what else you have going on and give them an opportunity to clarify, reassign the workload or find an extra person to help with the task. Managing and clarifying expectations can go a long way to protecting your sanity and keeping those around you happy. Before you pull an all-nighter for a boss who said they needed a project done ASAP, asking some simple follow-up questions such as “For my own clarification, what’s the deadline on this?” might illuminate that they actually had a more reasonable timeline in mind.

Protect Relationships

An important aspect of saying no is learning to do it in a way that doesn’t close you off to future ventures or make the person asking feel disrespected. Bob Burg has some great advice in his book Adversaries into Allies: Win People Over Without Manipulation or Coercion. He urges his readers to resist the lure to tell a white lie and cautions that this can work against you. Often the person has heard that excuse before and has already crafted a rebuttal, which then may lead to another white lie, having to admit you were being dishonest, or giving in and saying yes after all. He recommends crafting a response that feels natural to you along the lines of “Thank you for asking. While that’s not something I’d like to do, it’s really an honor to be asked.” Or “I’ve thought about it, but I don’t have time to do your excellent project justice.” Offer an alternative, if you can, that may assist them. This might be referring them to someone who can help, or an article or blog post that may help get them started.

I Overcommitted…Now What?

While the above advice is geared to keep you from getting into difficult situations, you may at some point find yourself in the position of having to back out of a commitment. Only you can know whether the situation requires you to suck it up, or lay your cards on the table. Maybe you had the best intentions and experienced a major work shift or life change, but your best bet is to be honest, and timely. Don’t wait hoping they’ll forget (they won’t). Explain the situation honestly, apologize sincerely, and if possible, offer another way you can help or contribute in a lesser manner.

Age and experience make it easier to identify your priorities and stay true to your principles, but practice setting boundaries now in a way that respects and honors those around you. This will ensure you’re cultivating your lilies and avoiding letting others down later. When it comes to saying no, you can never go wrong with the truth. Everyone respects it, and you keep your dignity intact. 


MarieTV. 2014, November 8. How to Win People Over Without Manipulation. Retrieved from:

MarieTV. 2014, February 11. Why Smart People Underperform. Retrieved from:

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Monette AndersonMonette Anderson, Academic Relations Coordinator

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