You know how it goes. You’re really, really busy. In fact, you’re too busy. You don’t have the time to take on anymore work. But then all of a sudden, someone really senior instructs you to do yet more work. What can you do?

The reality is, it doesn’t matter how senior that person is, or how polite you want to be, you only have so many hours in a day. If you take on too much work, both your work and your health will suffer. Furthermore, in the long run your working relationships may start to suffer as you start breaking promises to the people around you.

Sometime you have to stop and say no. But for so many people, saying that one word presents so many challenges. You might feel it’s rude to say no, or you’re not supposed to say no to certain people, maybe you’re even worried that saying no might impact your future career opportunities. So how can you get over these barriers and say that dreaded word? Well I have several tips.

First of all, start by saying “I need to check my schedule, let me get back to you”. This valuable phrase will buy you the time to check your schedule and see if you have enough time to take it on or not. Yes this means it will keep the other person waiting, and they may get impatient. But remember, just because they have failed to manage their time effectively does not mean it should impact on your time.

Next, if you are certain you can’t take it on, then follow these 4 steps to say No:

Start by explaining why you can’t help them. Give them a good and valid reason. Maybe you have an urgent project that needs to be finished, maybe you don’t have approval from your supervisor, maybe you have a meeting that you are required to attend and so don’t have the time for now.

If you’ve already given a valid reason then it will be easier for the other person to accept your refusal. Without the reason the other person is more likely to get pushy and start asking “Why?”, so remember that a good reason will soften them up. Then when it comes to the refusal, be direct here. No need for excuses, no need for false promises that you can’t keep. Just be direct and say something like “So I can’t help you with this”.

This part is optional. It’s important to remember that when working in a team, relationships are extremely important. If you never show a willingness to help then others might not be willing to help you when you need it. And the best thing about the compromise is that you offer to help them but only on your terms. Maybe you can help them but starting next week instead of immediately. Or you can help them with a part of the project as opposed to all of it. Maybe even if they help take care of your other projects then you can help them. The key here is to move away from telling them what you can’t do, and instead be proactive and tell them what you can do. But just make sure it is something that you really can do.

The purpose of a compromise is to preserve the relationship, and it’s the same here with giving alternatives. Maybe there is another person who is able to help them, or maybe you have a better suggestion on what they could do instead, maybe a whole other solution. Whilst the compromise is optional, giving alternatives is not. It’s important that even if there is nothing you can do to help them, then at least you show a willingness to provide them with valid suggestions.

So the next time someone asks you take on more work, remember to first say “Let me get back to you”, and then follow through with a Reason, Refusal, Compromise and Alternative. Maybe that person will even thank you!