When You Need To Say No And You Can’t

you need to say no and you can't to a lot of people

When you need to say no and you can't

To take control of your life, so you live it the way you want to means that you need to say no at times.  But what happens when you need to say no and you can’t either because they are your:

  • Boss
  • Colleagues
  • Customers/Clients
  • Friends
  • Family

Definitely, a tricky situation, especially if you are already:

  • Overworked
  • Overbooked
  • Overtired

Unfortunately, none of them received the memo that you’re unavailable!  But somehow, you have to accommodate them in some way.  You need to say no, but you can’t.  What do you do? 

Sound familiar? Sadly, we encounter this issue a lot.  These are people you can’t say no to.  You can’t physically take on one more thing; otherwise, you will end up in the corner with pencils up your nose rocking from side to side (aka Blackadder approach).

Luckily there’s a solution for each of them.

Your Boss

You might think that it’s near on impossible to say no to your boss.  After all, they are the ones who keep you employed.  Besides, the one person you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of is your boss!

But, the solution lies in not saying ‘no’ at all.  When you need to say no and you can’t, the best approach is to rewrite the script.  Rather than say “no”, remind your boss how much work you have and ask them about their priorities.  In effect, you are bringing to their attention your current workload.

Perhaps your boss has forgotten what they’ve given you, or they might want to rework your priorities completely.  Either way, you get your boss on board with what you are doing.  And who knows, they might decide to ask someone else or find a way to give you additional support and help.

For more information, I recommend an excellent article published by Harvard Business Review called How To Say No To Taking On More Work which is worth looking at. 

when you need to say no and you can't to colleagues

It's tough saying no to colleagues especially if they've been really helpful to you in the past


Another tricky situation is when you need to say no and you can’t to your colleagues.  At work, we rely on getting things done with the help of those around us, and our colleagues play a big part here. So you want to help them because later on, you might need them to help you.

The problem is, you truly might not have the time right now for one more project. In this case, honesty is the best approach.  Let your colleague know that you would love to help them out, but you’re swamped.

Most people will understand. After all, they’ve been there themselves.  You don’t need to leave them without support as you could suggest someone else to ask who might have more time available.

In the past, when I’ve said no to a colleague, I’ve gone back to them later when things have quietened down to check how they are doing.  In this way, I maintained a good working relationship.

Customers and Clients

The last thing you want to do is lose a customer or client, but if you’re already overbooked, it might be that you really don’t have time to take on the project. But, again, you don’t need to be in a customer-facing role for this; it could be an internal customer from another part of the business.

You need to say no and you can’t because the problem here is that we tend to say yes out of fear and then wind up not giving the job our best efforts. In this case, you need diplomacy. Regretfully decline, but also let them know that you’d take the job if you could, but also realize you can’t give them the quality they deserve if you do.

People like honesty.  What you are saying is that your usual high-quality approach will be compromised, and they deserve better.  Just as you did with your work colleague, you could offer an alternative person to go to.  Saying no, doesn’t mean you can’t be helpful.

If you’re good at your job, they’ll be back.

We'd do anything for our friends but sometimes we have to say no


The great thing about friends is that they’re already inclined to be understanding.  A friendship built on mutual respect and support means that you can say no, even if you feel you can’t.

The trick here is to be brief – just let them know that you can’t participate in whatever they’re suggesting, and then leave it at that.

Long explanations will make you seem insincere. Ever heard the expression “she protests too much” keep it simple.  Above all, don’t get caught up trying to make excuses.  Once you start down that road, then there’s every chance that you will be persuaded to do what you didn’t want to.


When you need to say no and you can’t, family is another area of challenge. 

Most of us are brought up with a sense of family obligation. But, unfortunately, you might be persuaded to do something out of a sense of duty.  Plus, your family knows just how to push your buttons and aren’t afraid to do so to get their way.

They’ve had years of practice!

To deal with family members, you’re going to need to dig deep into your confidence.   The best approach is to be:

  • Polite
  • Firm
  • And hold your ground

You might have to dig your heels in a little, but in the end, you’ll be glad you did.

As I mentioned above, when talking about friends, be brief.  Any excuse you offer will be pounced on, and as your family knows the buttons to press, you could be persuaded. 

Final Thoughts

At times it's really hard to keep on track and do what you want to do to make your life your own.  So many times, when you need to say no and you can’t, it comes down to relationships.

You don’t have to let the people in your life control your actions. Saying ‘no’ is not only possible – but necessary sometimes for your own peace of mind. You can do it! It’s all just a matter of saying ‘no.’

For more guidance on saying no without backing down, look at this article for some valuable tips.

Remember, you can’t say yes to everything.  You could suffer the consequences of:

  • Work of a low quality
  • Resentment that eats away at you
  • Impact on your health

Look at it this way.  When you say no to one thing, you are saying yes to something else. So ensure that your yes is related to how you want to live your life, not what someone else thinks you should do.

By Alison

A UK Based coach with 30 years of experience in personal development. I help women stuck in a life of pleasing others, discover what they really want to do with their life so that they feel happier, less stressed and more fulfilled.

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