I love being the go-to person that everyone can count on to get things done. However, there are occasional times when it's important to say no; not just to be able to sufficiently manage my own task list but to ensure I am prioritizing the needs of the person I was hired to support.
Although it goes against my willingness to serve, sometimes you have to guard your own time. Here are some tips on how to politely do so.
When you're being asked for assistance, is it your reflex to say, "I'd love to!", "Of course!" or something along those lines? Try to take a moment to pause before accepting the task. There might be tasks on your plate that aren't at the forefront of your mind that could conflict with the one being brought to your attention. Spend a moment going through your task list and reflect on how the task will affect everything else. Obviously you will not need to do this with every single task brought your way, especially if it's a quick task that just takes a minute or two, but the point is to learn to not to make saying "yes" your reflex.
When we have to say "no" and we are getting used to the feeling of it, it is easy to over-explain and provide too many details as to why we cannot help at that time. The reason why is we want the other person to understand every single little detail that is not allowing us to assist, when in fact all the other person just needs a brief, high-level overview. Keep your reasoning to just 1-2 sentences and keep any unnecessary minute details out.
Be polite and kind
Always remember to thank the person for bringing the task your way. At the end of the day, you are the person that came to mind as the best one to complete the job. Just because this happened to be a rare moment when you didn't have the bandwidth to help, make sure they know you are appreciative of the fact that they thought of you.
Also, remember to be kind. It can be hard for others to muster up the courage to ask for help so you don't want your tone, language, facial expressions or body language to make them feel bad for doing so. You don't need to be overly empathetic just be cognizant that you don't come across negative in any way.
Do your best to not come across hesitant in your response to the request or you will run the risk of not having the asker take you seriously. Be nice (see the above section for more details) but do your best to come across unwavering in your reply so they know that your answer of "no" is your final answer. The last thing you want is for them to think is that your answer is actually more of a maybe and that they should circle back again soon.
Provide other solutions
Always provide other solutions for the person who is asking for help. There are some cases where you will not be the correct person to turn to for a task anyway, however, providing other solutions still applies. My motto is "don't ever be a dead-end." Sometimes the suggestions will be other people they can turn to next or resources that will help them to complete the task themselves. People usually feel better when they leave feeling equipped with what they can do next to keep the task moving along.
I want to point out that providing other solutions also extends to situations that are not formally presented as tasks. For example, let's say you have been forwarded an email and are asked if you know the answer in the email chain but don't. Instead of simply responding "no," try to take a stab at suggesting other people or resources the people in the chain can turn to. Even if you aren't correct, at least you are providing options they might not have thought of. Like I mentioned previously, I believe in never being a dead-end and always doing your best to recommend where they might find the solutions they are seeking out.
If the person you support is the one giving you a task that is bringing you to your tipping point, discuss your current list of high priorities. I recommend finding out if it is possible for a shift to occur to make room for the new item that has been added to your plate. If you see a possible solution, bring that to your principal's attention. For example, perhaps one of those important items could be dropped to an non-urgent level or even delegated; you don't know until you have that conversation.
Deep down you will know when it's appropriate to speak up and turn down requests for your time. As I mentioned initially, it goes against my willingness to serve and I'm sure it feels unnatural to many of you reading this article as well. However, keep in the back of your mind that your task list has priorities and it's important to guard those not only for yourself but for the person you support. Just remember that in time you will feel more comfortable.
Also, remember that it's helpful to have this skill ready for those rare occasions that pop up (with an emphasis on the word rare; don't overuse your new skill just for the sake of using it!). Saying no at the appropriate moments will help to ensure you are the one in charge of your time. Also, it will help you to be the most effective assistant to the executive you were hired to support in the first place.
Are you able to say "no" when necessary? Please comment below!