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Saying no to your boss

When you think back to your childhood and your mom said, "We'll see," it was always better than a flat out, "No." Much like "possibly" is sufficient when you ask your boss for time off and "I'll think about it" gives you hope when you ask for a raise.

Though all of these responses are really just a more polite version of "no," they're easier to hear than the actual word itself. While hearing "no" is hard enough, it seems that saying no is even more difficult for some people -- especially when it comes to your boss.

"Most employees avoid saying no to their boss because they fear it will ruin their relationship, cost them their job or appear disrespectful," says Joseph Grenny, co-author of "Crucial Conversations." "With the right set of skills, it is possible to be 100 percent candid and respectful when holding this important conversation."

The reality is, we can't say to yes to everything, so it's essential to position yourself in the best way possible if and when you have to say no at work. The trick, experts say, is not really what you say, but how you say it.

"Many of us won't say the word because we are afraid to, especially in this economy," says Mary Byers, author of "How to Say No ... And Live to Tell About It." "It's easier to say no at work if you don't actually use the word. That way, your boss won't feel like you're being insubordinate."

Elisabeth Manning, a human potential coach, recalls a time when she was an assistant to the president of a major company. The president wanted to make Manning her marketing manager at the same time -- and the same salary.

Manning, who knew that she would have too much on her plate if she accepted working both jobs, told her boss that she wanted to maximize her capacity for potential at the company and accepting the offer would not be the best, most efficient use of her time.

"I was neutral, not emotional and held my ground," Manning says. "I spoke as if it were already a done deal, without fear."

Here are five situations where you might find yourself needing (and wanting) to say no at work and how you can do so tactfully -- and without losing your job.

How to say no to...

... Your boss assigning you too much work
It can be tough to tell your boss you have a problem with the amount of work he or she is assigning you, but it's possible if you can make your boss feel safe, Grenny says. Start with facts instead of harsh judgments or vague conclusions and let them know you care about their interests and respect them, he says.

"Strip out any judgmental or provocative language and be specific," Grenny says. "For example, 'Last week, you gave me two large projects to finish in a very short amount of time and I had to complete these on top of my regular responsibilities. I am afraid my large workload might be affecting the quality of my work.'"

... Outrageous demands
If your boss asks you to do something like run his errands or work all weekend and you can't (or don't feel like you should have to), focus on what you can do, says Dr. Susan Fletcher, a psychologist, author and speaker.

"The next time your boss asks you to go pick up his or her dry cleaning, instead of saying no, say, 'What I can do is cover your phone calls for you while you are out of the office,'" Fletcher suggests. "Or if your boss asks you to start up a new company initiative, instead of saying no, say 'What I can do is brainstorm with you on the strategy for the initiative and help get the proper team members in place who can execute the strategy."

... Something you honestly can't do
Of course, it's always good to learn new skills, but if you truly believe you aren't the best person for the job, you should say no. Byers suggests responding with something like, "Is there another department where this project might fit better, or someone we can collaborate with?"

"If you know you don't have the necessary time, resources or knowledge for a given project, this is a good way to open dialogue about the best way to get an assignment done," she says.

... Unrealistic deadlines
If you frame your response in a way that helps your boss to rethink his request, you'll be OK, says Beth Sears, president of Workplace Communication.

Be aware of your tone of voice and try something like, "I understand your need for this assignment to be completed, but I need some help prioritizing my other work. You requested me to complete 'A' by tomorrow, 'B' by Thursday and 'C' by Friday. This last assignment 'D' would make it impossible to accomplish all of these. How would you prioritize these tasks?" Sears suggests.

... Anything illegal, unethical or that crosses personal boundaries
Say no to anything that will you get into trouble if you say yes. Meaning, if something will be detrimental to your career or goes against your integrity, you should always say no.

Jennifer Bergeron, an HR training specialist, recently said no to one of her bosses who asked her to lie to her direct manager.

"I said, 'I'm not comfortable doing that, because the result will be [X, Y and Z]. Please don't ask me to ever lie to someone," Bergeron says. "He said, 'OK, you're right. I didn't realize all that was going on.'"

Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

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