Looking after your mental wellbeing at work

A supplementary guide for paralegals, business support staff in the Intellectual Property profession and those who manage them

How to say ‘no’ well

By Penelope Aspinall, Mental Health Consultant, Jonathan’s Voice

Part of establishing good boundaries is being able to say ‘no’. This comes easily to some people but for others it can feel very hard. There are various reasons for this, for example:

  • We want people to like us and think that we have to please people all the time, which makes saying ‘no’ feel very rude or difficult.
  • We may have been taught to put other people’s needs first and that taking care of ourselves is selfish.
  • We may be over-sensitive to the impact on others if we say ‘no’.
  • We may fear any kind of confrontation.
  • We may be afraid of other people’s reactions especially if we think they will be angry, hurt or upset. Never saying ‘no’ can be a way of avoiding this.
  • We may end up feeling guilty because we think we’ve let someone down.

Consequences of not being able to say ‘no’

  • The positive consequence is that we enjoy being seen as a helpful ‘can do’ kind of person.
  • We enjoy people’s appreciation and gratitude.
  • We avoid uncomfortable confrontation or disappointing people.
  • However, we can become overloaded.
  • People take it for granted that you will always say ‘yes’ and stop appreciating you.

So, whatever the motivation or the consequence, being able to say ‘no’ in a clear, pleasant and unambiguous way is a skill that is useful both at work and at home.

  • We neglect our own needs and this can lead to us becoming over-burdened and resentful in the end.
  • We can become over-committed and end up letting people down anyway, which is more annoying than if we had said ‘no’ in the first place.
  • It can lead to passive aggression; saying ‘yes’ but then finding a way to sabotage the task or not do it anyway.

When you need to say ‘no’

  • Be aware of what you want to do and what you have the capacity for.
  • Listen carefully to what is being asked of you and demonstrate that you understand this.
  • Say ‘no’ firmly and calmly.
  • Try using the word ‘no’ as one of the first words in your response; this leaves no room for misunderstanding or ambiguity.
  • Give a brief, clear reason for the refusal.

Do you know any people who say ‘no’ well? How do they do it? How does it make you feel? On the whole, when it’s done well we just accept it and move on. Saying ‘no’ can feel really hard at first but like all new skills, gets easier with practice. Accept that people might start to see you in a different light – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

  • Express regret but avoid long excuses or justifications.
  • Be sincere and authentic.
  • Suggest an alternative for satisfying the request, if appropriate. For example, you might be able to do it at another time.
  • Try not to feel guilty, responsible for other people’s feelings or start to overcompensate.


Leanne is working in a busy Finance team, with key monthly tasks and frequent requests from across the business. She often works late and sometimes at weekends to meet the competing demands. Her family and friends are concerned about this and she has recently upset a close friend by letting them down at the last moment when she announced she had to work late. 

Things came to a head when one of the fee earners came to Leanne on a Friday afternoon asking her to complete a complex report for a client meeting the following Monday. This would have meant working at the weekend but this would clash with an important and long-standing family event. Leanne realised she had to say no to the fee earner and became aware of how difficult this was going to be for her. Leanne had to face the fact she found it easier to let down those she loved than to say no to certain requests and demands at work.

However, in this instance, Leanne felt she had no choice. She expressed her genuine regret to the fee earner that she would not be able to do this by Monday and explained the reason why.



To Leanne’s surprise, the fee earner was very understanding and agreed that of course family needed to come first and apologised for asking her to do the task at such short notice. They had not realised it would have meant working over the weekend, said they would find another solution and hoped Leanne would have a wonderful time with her family. The fee earner also encouraged Leanne to let them know if this kind of situation occurred again. Leanne felt extremely relieved and realised that it was actually OK to say ‘no’ to things in the future, when there was a good reason.

Further information and resources

The Positivity Blog
How to Say No: 10 Powerful Tips


Centre for Clinical Interventions
How to Say “No” Assertively

Also in this guide