If You’re Saying Yes To THIS, What Are You Saying No To?

Many hardworking people, especially (but certainly not limited to) those in the early stages of their careers, have a hard time saying no when asked to take on new tasks in the workplace. Early on in adult life, we’re conditioned to take on new responsibilities and accept the challenges handed to us at work.

Say yes now, figure it out later.

Although sometimes that works out well (“Do you know how to resize photos in Photoshop?” “Of course!” — it’s easy enough to Google), oftentimes the effect is opposite to what we’re hoping for. Instead of looking like can-do, efficient workers, we end up behind on other commitments and burnt out trying to accomplish everything we set out to do.

Some of us have had jobs with crazy, almost impossible deadlines. We’d receive emails at 3:30 a.m. and wonder if our project manager had gone to bed yet or if she was already awake, starting her day. Being busy doesn’t always translate to being productive. Nor healthy. Someone told me recently that their friend missed her grandfather’s funeral because she couldn’t get out of work. Surely this can’t be the way to get ahead in our careers.

But, of course, we all want to show initiative and develop new skills at work.

So, what to do? How can we take on more if we’ve already taken on enough?

The Coaching Habit outlines seven great questions that every manager ought to ask in order to effectively lead their employees to success. When it comes to an overwhelmed and overworked employee who is saying yes to yet another thing that’s being thrown at them, why not ask, “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”

This question is a strategic one, and one that can help both manager and employee prioritize and evaluate.

As a manager, asking this question of your employee helps you define what exactly the employee needs to focus on and how exactly you can help them get there. As an employee, answering this question forces you to explain exactly what you need from your manager in order to complete the task.

This question may lead to many more questions, but that’s why it’s so strategic.

A yes is nothing without the no that gives it boundaries and form. Learn to say yes a little more slowly — ask more questions before committing, no matter what side of the question you’re on.

It’s tough to say no to coworkers, and even tougher to say no to bosses. Managers, too, want to say yes to helping their employees. Unfortunately, sometimes we really do need to say no, or at least figure out a way to say no to one thing in order to say yes to something else.

Here are few questions you can ask that will help you say yes a little more slowly:

  • Why are you asking me?
  • Whom else have you asked?
  • When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?
  • According to what standard does this need to be completed? By when?
  • If I couldn’t do all of this but could do just a part, what part would you have me do?
  • What do you want me to take off my plate so I can do this?

These questions will show your interest in the task at hand, help determine what both parties can do to help and have the end result of creating a strategic and feasible plan. Sometimes you might have to say no to part of the request, or even to all of it, but other times you’ll discover there are ways to alleviate stress and complete everything that needs to be done.

And you never know — the person looking for an immediate yes may just head off to find someone else willing to say yes quicker than you were!

For useful tips and tools that will help you improve the way you lead, check out the Box of Crayons blog. We often share blogs like these:

The Hardest Question to Ask
5 Tactics for Managing the Overwhelm
What to Do When Your Boss Is Crazy


Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. Box of Crayons is best known for its coaching programs, which give busy managers practical tools to coach in 10 minutes or less.

Download free chapters of Michael’s latest book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever here.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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