Disputes, misunderstandings, even heated contentions are inevitable, and, why not, necessary. When you look at it, you don’t want to be surrounded by people who completely agree with you- this impedes personal development as you don’t have any input of new information and viewpoints. Disputes are intrinsically ambiguous- they either produce a fertile exchange of ostensibly contradictory viewpoints, which is, of course, a positive outcome, or they end up in heated exchanges that are only frustrating to both parties.


There is also another outcome, which is our topic today- subjugating to the other party. Even though we all sometimes have to concede our defeat and accept our mistakes, it’s not smart to always retreat before other’s arguments. Your behavior in these ambiguous situations inevitably affects the outcome.

Learning how to kindly say no, and how to refuse what the other party proposes is the key to finding your way out of these tricky situations.


Essentially, this all comes down to learning how to say no assertively. Assertiveness is understood as the ability of a person to state her opinion without causing other people to feel bad, and without causing any self-harm.

More specifically, an assertive person knows how to say no without feeling guilty.

Assertiveness is also about self-confidence- only a confident person can react rationally and calmly to potentially negative situations (i.e. getting in open conflict with another party- either verbal or nonverbal). Indeed, there might be a small subset of situations when one wouldn’t want to act assertively, at least not if one takes our definition of this trait. Sometimes it happens so that one has to face inevitable physical harm, and assertiveness has nothing to do with these kinds of situations.

Fortunately, we don’t usually find ourselves in life-or-death situations, which means that learning how to kindly say no becomes the most efficient strategy for dealing with interpersonal problems.

Basic Tenets of Assertiveness

Assertiveness can be further divided:

  1. Cognitive/ emotional aspect (psychological sphere)
  2. Behavioral aspect(habit-learning; learning scripts and phrases; learning when and how to employ the chosen phrases)

The first aspect of saying no politely relates to beliefs, presumptions, and attitudes (cognitive aspect), and emotional states (emotional aspect). These two psychological elements make up one’s system of beliefs, which in turn determines one’s behavior (e.g. always saying “yes”, avoiding conflicts with people too much, etc.). If avoidance of conflicts is serious, it’s most probably linked with negative evaluation of oneself, and a negative system of beliefs in general. These issues are best dealt with by commencing psychotherapy of some kind. Negative beliefs about oneself are often quite rigid and “cemented”, and many psychotherapeutic hours should be spent on analyzing the distorted belief system.

Sometimes, the problem isn’t as deep as implied above. In this, the latter, case, a person doesn’t have a maladaptive self-concept- most of the time, these cases are tied to quite specific situations. The more specific the problem, the better. If an individual only has problems when dealing with coworkers, but behaves assertively outside her work hours, the problem is by definition much more specific and thus much more changeable. It’s safe to say that these individuals ultimately lack the behavioral elements of assertiveness (e.g. knowing how to reply to superiors or coworkers).

While the group of people who has problems with distorted cognitive and emotional elements, which then lower their self-esteem and make their inability general, persons who only lack behavioral elements often have a more specific inability, and we’ll now analyze these specific inabilities more thoroughly.

How to Politely Refuse Urgent Work?

By urgent work, we mean sudden, unforeseeable, work requests. We’ve all been there, just when it seems that you can call it a day, someone comes by and asks you to do “just one more little thing”. And most of the time this “little thing” turns up into several hours of work. This is when you can say something like:

1. Look, I would be glad to help you, but today I had something in mind and I don’t want to alter my plan. If you want we can take a look at it some other day?

The first statement might seem kind of bold, but a lot depends on the way you say all these statements. Constant or at least occasional glances towards the recipient are a must- not watching your recipients might be interpreted as aloofness or insecurity on your part. You want to sound neutral.

2.     I cannot do it today. I have to check my schedule and get back to you if I manage to find some time.

This statement is perhaps even more straightforward when compared with statement 1. The important thing is that you say: “…and get back to you…”. This way, you decide whether you want to call back.

If a person starts to implore you, 2 things should be kept in mind. Asking about the urgency of the situation, and trying to see if the other person didn’t overreact and went too far in her demands:

  1. I understand all that, but the work is simply too urgent. Why is this? What happens if you don’t get it on time?
  2. Let’s try to see how you will postpone this a little bit- perhaps when you calm down a little we’ll be able to find the best solution.

It’s not by chance that we wrote “we” in the second part of the fourth statement. By saying “we” you are offering your help- of course, still only when you think you should.

How to Refuse Your Boss?

Refusing a boss is a bit different. There are some situations in which it is reasonable to feel at least a bit anxious- for example when you request a raise. However, it’s even harder to refuse a boss once he or she wants something. This is how you should do it:

  1. Look, boss, I cannot do it right now. I know it may be urgent, but please try to understand my point of view. What you propose is reasonable but I didn’t plan to do it, and if I were to accept the proposal I would nevertheless be unable to do it the way it should be done.

Notice that you’re being a bit more defensive here when compared with other statements mentioned earlier. However, being defensive doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re unassertive. It simply means that you’re doing your best to avoid conflict.

If your boss is a meaningful person, don’t hesitate to confide your anxiety or other negative emotions by saying:

  1. See, I sometimes get a bit nervous when we have these kinds of debates which is why I sometimes say something or accept some tasks I otherwise wouldn’t.

How to Say No to Your Coworker?

  1. We’re in this together, I know that, but I simply cannot take this project on. Yes, I want to be a part of the team, but the team also has to take care of its members.

Don’t think that people will think that you’re a narcissist if you utter this statement. The effect of this statement also depends on your nonverbal behavior, so pay attention to this aspect too.

  1. ______ (insert name of a colleague here), we both work in the same company and you know how hard it is sometimes. This is why you have to understand me and realize that I cannot take new assignments because I already have loads of them.

How to Say No to Your Client?

“The customer is always right”, so they say. But sometimes you have to say no to a customer, and luckily there are many ways to say no to a client:

  1. Here’s the deal- other salespeople wouldn’t say this, they would seemingly accept your requests and then go on to do as they wished in the first place, but I will say it and hope that you won’t take it the wrong way- sadly, I cannot meet your requests.
  2. This is not my decision, it is simply the policy of our company- but unfortunately, we have to agree to disagree. 

In Conclusion: Assertiveness Skill

Contrary to the popular movie ‘Yes Man’, there is very little merit to saying yes to everything in your life, be it things, events or people. Being a confident person who knows what he or she is doing feeds one’s assertiveness well.


It is totally OK to have differences in opinions. Sometimes there is just an angle of viewpoint which makes it all so disagreeable. It does not mean compromise isn’t possible. Our recommendations how you can apply assertiveness at work, with your boss and colleagues should help you not to stress out when it comes to this point.

Be prepared to these situations and the outcome would be favorable for you.

Remember, assertiveness is a skill you can learn, practice and master.