How To Successfully Use The 'Neutral No' At Work


boss employee conversation

John Moore/Getty Images

Saying no can be difficult at work, especially if you're dismissing a request from your boss or a coworker. But it doesn't have to be.

Holly Weeks, a communications expert and author of "Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them, says using a "neutral no" - where you eliminate all emotion from your voice - can help alleviate that uneasy feeling that you're letting someone down.

"A 'neutral no' is your best protection against a mixed message," Weeks says. "Mixed messages are hard on reputations and relationships, and reputation and relationships are your most valuable assets."


If you say no tentatively or reluctantly, it gives the impression that you might change your mind with a little convincing, Weeks says. Similarly, if you answer brusquely, you might come off hostile or angry. Instead, keep your voice steady, uninflected, and clear. "A neutral no isn't apologetic or angry, soft or harsh, sympathetic or combative," Weeks explains.

It may sound complicated at first, as we're inclined to show disappointment or regret when turning someone down, but if you've ever answered "no" when asked if it rained yesterday or if there's milk left in the fridge, you've employed "neutral no."

Now you just need to train yourself to use it in more sensitive situations. Here's how:


Don't waffle.

Because people are generally encouraged to not take no for an answer, many will try to convince you to change your mind. So stay neutral, and don't feel obligated to address every point if you're sure of your decision. "If your reason for saying no is well chosen and neutrally spoken, stay with it," Weeks says. "You don't need to switch reasons or follow every other line of argument."

Stay on topic.

Using a "neutral no" isn't about condensing the discussion down to one word. It might require an entire conversation to explain or open a dialogue on the subject, Weeks warns. It's important to have the discussion, but keep your response clear and honest. "It isn't standing your ground, refusing to give in, or any of the other perspectives that make saying no sound like combat."


For most of us, staying neutral when delivering difficult-to-hear information doesn't come naturally. Recognize where you're vulnerable to giving in, whether it's tears or threats, and practice dealing with it, Weeks suggests. "Work with someone who will throw at you what you struggle with most and give you feedback on your success in remaining steady, clear, and uninflected in response," she says.


When it comes down to it, saying no to your boss or a respected colleague is never easy. However, learning to turn people down without burning bridges or hurting feelings is a skill worth mastering.