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A colleague approaches you and asks for a favor. Suddenly, you’re enthusiastically offering a resounding “Yes!” while your insides are screaming “No, no, no! Absolutely not!”

We’ve all been there. When we’re constantly told that we need to be helpful team players, it can be tough to figure out how to politely decline anything.

But, learning to say “no” is essential to your success (not to mention your sanity). Here’s why:

You need to leave time for ‘yes’

Picture this: You’ve packed your schedule with things that you halfheartedly agreed to. Then, something better comes along — something that gets you excited about your career path again.

You’re leaping out of your seat to grab that opportunity. But, you don’t have the necessary time because you’ve piled your plate full with those other things you could have said “no” to.

You don’t want to just be liked, you want to be respected

It’s great to be an agreeable and collaborative team player. But, you also want to be respected — and that’s going to involve putting your foot down every now and then.

How to say ‘no’ (respectfully, of course)

• Be gracious

Rejecting a request is uncomfortable, no matter how small or large the ask. However, you can cushion the blow by starting your refusal with a polite “thank you.”

Try something like, “I appreciate you thinking of me for this, but my plate’s a little too full right now,” or, “Thanks so much for inviting me, but I have other plans.” Starting with something that’s friendly and positive will make the exchange less awkward.

You can also be gracious in the form of offering an alternative. Perhaps that involves suggesting another colleague who could help or providing a time when you would be able to take that favor on. Doing so will emphasize that you’re willing to be helpful, even if you can’t personally say “yes” to that request.

• Use firm language

If giving a hard pass makes you uneasy, it can be tempting to skirt around the issue with vague statements like, “I’ll think about it,” or “Let me get back to you.” But, this approach won’t do anybody any favors.

Instead, give a firm answer. One study even suggests that you should use the word “don’t” instead of “can’t.” For example, try saying, “I don’t have the adequate time to take that on,” rather than, “I can’t take that on right now.” That’s an answer that you — and that other person — will take seriously.  

• Resist apologizing

Saying “no” can feel counterintuitive, but it’s important that you resist the urge to apologize. Don’t start your refusal with something like, “I’m sorry, but ...” as that will leave an open door for you to be talked (or, worse, guilt-tripped) into completing that request.

If you need to preface your rejection with something, use a polite “thank you.” 

• Keep it professional

Any time you’re communicating in the office, you want to do so in a way that’s professional and respectful.

That means no flying off the handle, losing your cool, bursting into tears, or — most importantly — lying. In the end, that will only come back to bite you.