Knowing when to say no

Many people are uncomfortable saying no because they do not want to disappoint others, have had negative experiences saying no in the past or don't want to be viewed as uncooperative. This can especially be the case for dedicated professionals such teachers, teaching assistants and lecturers.

Setting realistic expectations has benefits for everyone, however – even when that expectation is a definitive no. For the person who is promising more than they can deliver, it can help restore or preserve their professional integrity. Who wants to be known as the person within an organisation who always over-promises and under-delivers?

Setting realistic expectations will also benefit your well-being by reducing stress and anxiety. Even the person whose request is refused may benefit. That person knows immediately to seek other resources or to reset expectations themselves (with parents, clients, etc.).

What do teachers find difficult to say no to?

Stressors teachers have cited include:

  • critiques, including OFSTED inspections and classroom observations
  • disagreeing with a grading system or a policy regarding student placement or promotion, and feeling their objection was not supported by the school
  • requests or implications to spend more time at work, such as
    • taking on extra responsibilities
    • requests to cover shifts
    • implied requests to work whatever hours are needed to get the job done (regardless if you are up very late at night and/or working weekends)
    • being asked to attend meetings when they have no childcare (and no family who can help)

Putting some of these stressors into perspective may help:

  • Critique is not synonymous with criticism. The intention of any professional critique is to note areas of strength and make recommendations for improvement. A constructive, thoughtful critique can be an excellent tool for professional development.
  • Many teachers may be nervous and wary about OFSTED inspections. It's important to remember that inspections are a 'snapshot in time' of the school and your abilities. It doesn't represent the day-to-day reality.
  • Remember that classroom observations are both subjective and objective. Always ask for written feedback and for the next steps after an observation. Respond to observations that you feel are inaccurate or subjective in writing. Engage in a professional dialogue by inviting the observer to add information if needed.
  • If you are feeling overcommitted, let the requestor know what you are reasonably able to do for them and remind of what you're already doing (e.g. after-school club, etc.).

Preparing to say no

Effective communication is vital when dealing with colleagues, management and parents. It is important to first understand what your job duties entail; then set realistic expectations of what you can and cannot do. Don't agree to do something that you know will cause you undue stress or physical effort.

What can you do to prepare yourself for an uncomfortable situation?

Demonstrate positive communication skills.
There are many resources available to assist you in improving your communication skills, but here are some basics:

  • be aware of your body language: maintain eye contact and a neutral posture
  • avoid showing anger or distain in your body language, tone or words
  • paraphrase statements made by others to confirm your understanding of their request

Engage in positive self-talk
Remind yourself of the value of your own skill set, experience, education and successes. It might help some to document your thoughts, feelings and ideas, to remind yourself of why you are making the decision that you are making.

Visualise how you will react if a particular objectionable request is asked
If possible, write out and practice some responses. Take deep breaths, practice stating your mantra or personal-affirmation statement, and use 'I' statements. Here is an example: 'I feel unvalued when you ask me to cover with less than one day notice and no extra time to complete my regular duties.'

Confronting any sort of objection or conflict is never easy – so practicing will make it easier
Role-play with a friend, family member or colleague outside of work, so you can become confident saying no in a respectful yet assertive way.

Discuss your concerns with a supervisor to assist you if that would be helpful.

How do you set goals to be able to say no?

An easy rule of thumb is this: 'Saying no to something allows me to say yes to something else.' It is all about balance. Remember that there are only 24 hours in each day. Budget your time and strategically decide how much time to spend on this, that or the other.

Here is an example:

  • Everyone needs between seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
  • The average teacher is physically present at the school for around eight to nine hours daily, then spends another several hours at home working on lessons, grading papers and so forth.
  • Factor in the need for positive self-care: time with family and time with friends.

When you visually add up your day in this way, you may realise that there really isn't a lot of 'leftover time' to take on additional responsibilities. In other words – when there nothing left in the budget, there is truly nothing left to give. Knowing that ahead of time is a great way to freely say no.

Prioritise. Write down a list of items that you 'have to' do, and rank in importance with 'I will literally be fired if I don't get this done', as the most important item. Then work down from there, to the 'least' important item. You are human, not a robot, and there are some items you might not get to.

Focus on what you can control – even if it's very small: the order of the lesson, the layout of your desk, deciding what time you'll start marking and the like.

Alternatives to no

  • 'Thank you for considering me for this. Let me check my diary before I commit.'
  • 'I appreciate you asking me. I'm going to take time to fully consider this… I will respond to you when I have an update.'
  • 'I have to admit that I disagree with that decision. Can we find some time to talk through some things that concern me?'
  • 'Whom else have you considered for that task, role or responsibility?'
  • 'I have some professional/ethical reservations regarding taking that on at this time.'
  • 'Have we considered the larger implications of this?'

Final tips

  • Remember that you're saying no to X so that you can be better at Y and Z. If all else fails, don't say no, say something like this: 'I can't right now and I'll let you know if anything changes.'
  • Remember that others are under stress and pressure as well. Be kind.
  • Your colleagues and administrators have their own lives and their own issues, and are not likely as focused on you as you think.
  • Familiarise yourself with the process at your institution – what things can you be more flexible on and what other things need to be answered immediately – and say no based on procedure or need.
  • Having a good perspective of the 'big picture' can be tremendously helpful – schools in the UK are under significant pressure to prove themselves and to show improvement. Try not to take it personally. The schools are looking at all facets of the system in order to improve, not a specific teacher or department.
  • For non-teaching staff (e.g. administrators), it could be helpful to ask what teachers' specific needs are, and see if they can be addressed on a smaller scale/part-time basis.

Further reading

Here are some additional resources for information and advice:

Read the WikiHow article on saying no without feeling guilty
http://www.wikihow.com/Say-No-Without-Feeling-Guilty.

This article has some great tips
https://www.verywell.com/say-no-to-people-making-demands-on-your-time-3145025.

Check out the article 'Setting Boundaries and Saying No… Nicely'
http://99u.com/articles/7076/setting-boundaries-saying-no-nicely.

How we can help

  • Helping you
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That's why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Helping your staff
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone's wellbeing.

Written by: Workplace Options (June 2015)

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.