How to Say ‘No’ to Your Boss

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG by: Ben Benjamin, Ph.D., co-author of, “Conversation Transformation: Recognize and Overcome the 6 Most Destructive Communication Patterns.”

Regardless of what you do for a living, or who you work for, there are going to be times when you find yourself having to say “no” to your boss.

These situations can be uncomfortable and awkward, because- well, they sign your paycheck, and getting on their bad side could be the difference between keeping your job and losing it; getting chosen for that promotion or being looked over; being allowed to take that family vacation or having to stay in the office.

As unpleasant as these encounters might be, you have to remember that it happens to everyone in the workforce.

If you have had less-than ideal results when saying no to your boss in the past, chances are it’s how you are saying it rather than the fact that you are saying it.

This is not uncommon at all.

After many years of communicating a certain way, our brains have difficulty changing the patterns that took so long to develop. Even if we realize that we are sending mixed messages, irritating others, or failing to get our point across as intended; we still tend to automatically default those same old patterns out of habit, which will yield the same results. It is only by going through these encounters outside of your workplace and practicing new and improved techniques that we can overcome these destructive patters and perfect our ways of communication.

So next time you are anticipating a difficult conversation with your boss, try practicing these steps to see if they make the encounter go any smoother, or see if you can get your point across any better.

Concise message

Conventional wisdom says to “flip-flop” to some extent when communicating with our boss. Rather than just say what we mean (“no”), we tend to dance around the response- often by saying things like “Yes I can see why that needs to get done, but I really don’t have time to get that done today”. While this may seem like a way to say “no” without actually saying it; in reality it is an extremely confusing and unproductive way to communicate. The “yes-but” is one of the six most destructive (and commonly used) communication patterns.

As we all know, bosses tend to have selective hearing, and will hear what they want to hear while ignoring the rest. When you do use a “yes-but”, a boss may “tune out” after the “yes” portion, resulting in your objection (the “but”) falling on deaf-ears. So when communicating your message, you need to be sure that you are saying exactly what you mean. It is essential that you choose your words wisely and deliver the precise message that you mean to.


If you do need to say no, you need to be sure that your response is firm and directly to the point. A firm response lets them know that you mean business and that you’re stance on the issue is set in stone. Also it gives your boss a clear idea of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Explanation is Key

While being firm is important, it can come across poorly without a proper explanation. For example, if assigned a menial task that you truly don’t believe falls in your realm of responsibility, let your boss know exactly why; if you are too busy to complete the tasks assigned, let them know. Replace “No, I can’t do that” with “I can’t do that because I am on deadline for this project”.

By doing this, you provide tangible reasons why the requested task cannot be completed. So rather than thinking that you are being lazy or stubborn, they will know that you are prioritizing properly, or that you know exactly what your responsibilities entail.

Offer Alternatives

When saying “no” to something that you can tackle later, be sure to offer alternatives. For example-

“I don’t have time to get to this right now because I am preparing for my conference call. But after that call I would be happy to get that done.”

If it isn’t one of your responsibilities, consider something like this-

“That isn’t something that is one of my responsibilities, but I know that Kim has done that in the past- maybe she could help you with that”

Offering alternatives like these not only shows your boss that you are willing to help, but also provides a solution that will help the tasks get completed sooner rather than later.