"Yes" to the Person, "No" to the Task

Negotiating to Meet Everyone's Needs


Do you feel obliged to say "yes" whenever someone asks for your help?

It can be difficult to turn down a co-worker who needs your help or a boss who dumps another assignment in your lap. But if you say "yes" every time, you risk taking on too much and becoming burned out, missing deadlines, or losing sight of your own priorities and goals.

In this article, we'll discuss how to say "yes" to the person, and "no" to the task, in a way that meets everyone's needs – including your own – without conflict or guilt.

See the transcript for our video on "Yes" to the Person, "No" to the Task here.

When to Say "No" to the Task

Sometimes when you're asked to do something, you need to say "no."

But remember, it's usually unprofessional to say "no" to a task just because you don't want to do it, or you don't understand how to do it, because will take a long time, or it's messy and complex.

Here are some key questions to ask before saying "no" to a task:

  • Do I have time to do it? Think about how urgent and/or important it is. Where in Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle does this request fit?
  • Am I the right person for the task? Consider whether someone else is better suited to the job.
  • Does this request fit with my goals and objectives? Create an Action/Priority Matrix to determine fit.

If your answer to any of these questions is "no," then you may be best off saying "no." (There's more on how to do this below.)

The Dangers of Saying "Yes" to Everything

Even when you know you should say "no" to a task, it can be difficult to turn someone down. It's only natural to want to help a friend or co-worker in need, after all.

You may be worried that saying "no" could harm your reputation. Or, you may feel that by saying "no," you'll miss out on an opportunity to learn new skills or develop connections. Perhaps you feel you owe someone for a favor they did for you and you don't want to tarnish a work relationship.

But having the reputation as a "yes-person" can be just as harmful in other ways. If you say "yes" to everything, fulfilling other people's needs will take up valuable time and prohibit you from focusing on your own goals. Taking on too much at one time will reduce the quality of your own work and put you under added stress, possibly leading to burnout.

There are only so many hours in a day, so you can't achieve everything! Saying "no" to certain tasks doesn't make you a difficult or unhelpful person, rather, it means you are conscientious about the quality of your work. You will likely produce better results if you effectively prioritize and manage your workload to reflect your skills and goals.

So, to protect your time and mental well-being, sometimes it's important to say "no."

Learning to Say "No" Assertively

Once you've determined that you're better off turning down a task, use these tips to firmly but fairly say "no" to it.


See our articles on assertiveness and managing your boundaries for a full discussion of these topics and tips on how to communicate more assertively.

Be Honest

Using the three questions we mentioned earlier, explain to the person why you don't think you should do the task.

For example, if you don't have the time or capacity right now, be sincere and let the person know that. You don't need to tell them everything on your To-Do List, just politely tell them that you aren't able to work on it this time.

Be Clear

If you're going to say "no" to a task, then say "no." Don't create blurred lines or send mixed messages with an uncertain answer like "maybe" or "if I get time." A vague response like this doesn't free you from the commitment, and can easily be misinterpreted by your colleague. They may even try to exploit your uncertainty and pressure you to say "yes."

So, be authoritative, clear and timely when you respond. By saying "no" upfront, your co-worker will know to seek assistance elsewhere, and the task is more likely to get completed.

Be Polite

With that said, you don't want to be so firm as to appear rude. While you should be straightforward, avoid sounding blunt or dismissive.

Express regret that you can't take on the task to show that you're not being unreasonable. Then, while explaining why you've said "no," use open body language where possible to convey warmth and friendliness, and avoid looking hostile or angry.

Use Negotiation

Even when you say "no" to a task, you can still view it as a chance for collaboration. With negotiation, you can say "yes" to the other person by respecting their needs – at the same time that you give yourself the opportunity to say "no" to the task itself.

To do this, forget the idea that negotiation means giving something up. Instead, this new process frees you to get what you need.

For example, if your boss asks you to be on another committee, and you simply don't have the time, you don't have to say "yes" or "no." Instead, approach the situation as an opportunity to negotiate.

Does the new committee offer career development opportunities that fit with your long-term objectives? If yes, perhaps you can give up another assignment in exchange. This might even be the time to renegotiate your job description and redefine your roles and responsibilities within the organization!

Negotiating Basics

The word "negotiation" often conjures up images of high-pressure situations, where people have a lot to lose if they get things wrong.

In fact, you probably negotiate several times each day. You do it at home and at work for all sorts of things: from deciding what to make for dinner, to settling on terms for a job promotion. Because of this, you are a negotiator, even if you don't think of yourself as one.

Negotiation is simply the act of reaching an agreement as to how you'll move forward. It's the process of communicating back and forth, and finally having all parties agree to a solution. There are many ways to arrive at this agreement, but there are three main styles of negotiating:

Hard Negotiating

Some people view negotiation as a game they have to win. They use "hard" negotiation tactics, and this often leaves one party very satisfied and the other side with no choice but to agree. The problem with this approach is that the relationship between the two parties is often permanently damaged.

The person asking for something may receive it, but the second person probably feels taken advantage of and, perhaps, angry and resentful. If it wasn't really a willing "yes," the second person is unlikely to complete the work quickly, or with a positive attitude.

Soft Negotiating

The opposite approach is to accommodate. This is when one party yields their position and original goal, simply agreeing to what the other person wants. This "soft" tactic is often the result of wanting to keep relationships friendly. The end result, however, is that this person doesn't get what's needed, and they lose control to the other person.

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Principled Negotiating

Negotiations that aim for mutually satisfying outcomes are often best. These are sometimes called collaborative, integrative, or principled negotiations. The techniques used to conduct these help negotiators to find a solution that shows high concern for the needs of both sides. The result is a win-win solution – rather than one side giving up a "position," the focus is on finding a new position where everyone is satisfied.

If you use these elements as the basis of your negotiation, you'll be more able to find creative solutions to the problems you're trying to solve.


Our article Essential Negotiation Skills, is a comprehensive guide to preparing for and confidently carrying out negotiations. For further support, listen to our Expert Voices episode, How to Negotiate, to learn from negotiation experts.

Even though the extents of our negotiations vary, one principle remains the same: when both parties win, the outcome is often better. Whether someone asks you for a favor, or you need to agree on terms for a contract or project, you must collaborate to achieve a win-win solution.

When you collaborate, you consider everyone's needs. Therefore, even if you have to say "no" to something, you're still concerned about finding a way to get the other person's needs met, and this allows you to say "yes" to the person.

How to Say "Yes" to the Person but "No" to the Task

If your answer to the task request is "no," then figure out how to say "yes" to the person at the same time. To do this, make sure that you explain your justification, so that it's clear that you're only saying "no" to this particular task – and possibly only on this occasion.

If the other person understands why you've said "no", they are less likely to be left with the impression that you're simply being unhelpful. However, you may also have to be firm about how you say "no."

As we've discussed, this may mean negotiating to accommodate the request in a different way.

To say "yes" to the person, first answer three main questions:

  • What does this person really need? Find areas of flexibility and determine their priorities.
  • How else can this person's need be met? Find a different frame of reference or approach to the problem, then look for time and resource alternatives.
  • How can I support this person to have the need met? Define the larger goal and look for common interests and needs.

High levels of trust and good communication are essential to this process. Although there's no guarantee that trust will lead to a good solution, mistrust will almost certainly harm collaboration. People who don't trust each other tend to be defensive, and this often leads people to look for "hidden agendas" or withhold information.

When people trust each other, they're more likely to communicate their needs accurately. When they share information about what they want, what they need, and why they need it, this can lead people to cooperate to look for a joint solution. And when you work in an environment of respect and trust, it's much easier to reach an agreement without compromising your needs in the process.


Saying "yes" to the person but "no" to the task generally involves a conversation, rather than just a one-sentence response. However, here are some examples of how you can do so in simple situations.

"I'm sorry, I can't do that analysis this week. Can I do it for you next Wednesday?"

"I'm sorry, I can't take on doing this analysis on a regular basis because Alex wants me to prioritize development work. But I know Viktor is working on developing his Excel skills. Would you like me to show him how to extract the data so he can take this on?"

"I could do that analysis, but I wondered what information you actually want from it. If it's the conversion rate from the advertising campaign, would one of the measures in the report that marketing sends round give you what you need?"

Key Points

Saying "yes" to everything puts you under added pressure and stress, and can lead to poor-quality results and burnout.

To determine when you should say "no" to a task, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Do I have time to do it?
  • Am I the right person for the task?
  • Does this request fit with my goals and objectives?

When you say "no" to a task, use principled negotiation to still satisfy the other person. Do this by asking these three questions:

  • What does this person really need?
  • How else can this person's need be met?
  • How can I support this person to have the need met?

By saying "yes" to the person but "no" to the task, you meet everyone's needs – including your own.

Many thanks to Club member MichaelP who came up with the phrase "Say YES to the person and NO to the task" in this discussion in the Career Café forum.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (25)
  • Over an hour ago Sonia_H wrote
    Hello Learning2Transform,

    Thanks for sharing these additional conversation examples!

    Mind Tools Team
  • This week Learning2Transform wrote
    Please add more conversation examples of say No

    Examples of ways to say “no”

    “Unfortunately, I have too much to do today. I can help you another time.”
    “That sounds fun, but I have a lot going on at home.”
    “I’m not comfortable doing that task. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
    “Now isn’t a good time for me. I’ll let you know if my schedule frees up.”
    “Sorry, I have already committed to something else. I hope you understand.
    “I would love to join you, but I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with work right now.
    “Sadly, I cannot help with that. I’m not qualified for that type of work.
    “The timing right now isn’t good. Can you keep me in mind for next time
    “How about you try it on your own first, and then I can help you?
    “I enjoyed helping you last time, but I am too busy to assist you right now.”
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi smasoud,

    A warm welcome to you and thank you for your feedback on the article! If there is anything you need, please ask us. The Mind Tools Team is here to help. Do pop over to the Forums when you can. We'd love to here your voice over there.

    Mind Tools Team
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