How To Push Back And Say “No”

Assertive behavior and the ability to push back is a necessary skill for any leader. In fact, it is crucial for any individual who wants to achieve their life goals, keep their sanity, and have a satisfactory life. The ability to push back is also a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most introverts.

Not only can pushing back help you keep your sanity, but it may also help you to be seen as more competent and ultimately to become more skilled. Pushing back is to a big extent about confidence, understanding one’s limitations, and priorities. When you know what your energy and skill limits are, you can prioritize. If you prioritize, you can focus on what gives you the biggest reward for the time and effort spent. It can be in the form of getting better at a particular skill, finishing your primary task on time, or helping the team with high reward project.

Being able to push back on extra work that doesn’t bring benefit to you and your team also means you free up some of your time to spend growing other people. Again, you prioritize the most significant benefit for the team. You may also play a vital role in shielding your team from errand work that is not particularly important. Keeping the team focused, help them prioritize and remove distractions is one of the critical responsibilities of a leader. If you do that, it will also help your image of a competent boss. So what can you do to get better at pushing back and say “no” when you want to say it?

Show your value – it is so much easier to push back without creating a negative image for yourself if everyone already knows that you can do a good job. So if you are new to the team or to the organization focusing on doing a good job, being hard working, having a right attitude, and delivering results is the first step that will build a solid foundation for your ability to push back as it builds credibility and respect.

Differentiate between a perspective and a person – when you disagree with another person and voice that disagreement there is always a danger that you will activate their defenses. People may feel you are not only challenging their point of view and their view of reality but that you are also attacking them directly. If you can clearly voice that you don’t have an issue with the person and only disagree with this one particular point of view, it will make it less threatening and more comfortable for you to push back and for the other person to keep factual and not skip into an emotional fight or flight response. Saying things like, “you don’t know what you are talking about,” or, “you are always against my ideas,” is making things personal, so avoid it. Removing emotions and sticking to the facts will make this much more comfortable.

Be prepared – unless you are surprised by a particular request, it is always good to prepare ahead of time some data and arguments to support your point of view. It helps especially in situations when you are pushing against something that is familiar to the other person, and you want to propose something new. For most people, new equals dangerous. If you can point out that others have tried your way, and that it is less risky than it may look like, it will be easier for you to push back. This is especially important in business related matters where data are often king when making decisions. If others see that you are pushing back with legitimate concerns and you care about the company, it will be easier for them to back off.

Understand the big picture – it is always good to have a holistic view of any situation to pick the right response. An essential part of pushing back is understanding the culture and background of the person you want to push back on and the organizational culture of the company you are working in. In some cultures, it is not only acceptable to push back, but it may even be expected. If you don’t push back it may feel like you don’t care, you don’t have your own opinions, or you are not really leadership material. In other cultures, it may mean the exact opposite, and you may be seen as not being a team player, or as someone who cares only about themselves, is unwilling to help others, or that you are working behind people’s backs and don’t respect the chain of command. If you chose the wrong approach for pushing back, you would create friction.

Ask questions – before you even start pushing back make sure you understand what are you saying “no” to, or what are you disagreeing with. When listening to the responses try to understand your own position and what exactly triggered your disagreement. Sometimes you may have an issue only with a specific subset of the activity, or there might be some conflict with your core values, goals and beliefs. Verifying whether you understand right what is being asked of you helps in two ways. First, when you realize what you are pushing back against you can put into your words how you interpret the request. By paraphrasing what you heard, you give the other person a chance to hear back what exactly they are asking you to do. They may then tone it down if the request sounds unreasonable. Second, the other person will feel that you are actually interested in what they are saying.

Listen and then talk – use your listening skills to build a rapport and connect with the person who is pushing on you. If they feel you are listening, if they think they are being understood, they are more likely to listen to your arguments. In fact, you can enhance this by not stating your position at all but by asking questions that will force the other person to think it through, be more specific in their needs, and possibly come up with alternative solutions.

Offer alternatives – saying “no” is easier when you help the other party see different options and alternative solutions. Saying that you disagree is rather unhelpful. Event something like “no, I’m busy,” doesn’t really explain anything. So what that you are busy? It brings no value and makes you look bad. If you can disagree by saying not only why you think something is a bad idea, but also suggest alternatives it makes you more constructive, more in control, and again will make it easier for both parties to have a conversation that will lead to mutually beneficial results.

Avoid saying “but” – there is huge power in using the right words. If you listen to the other person’s perspective, and then you say something along the lines of, “yes, but I think…” it automatically shows that you didn’t listen, you disagree, you just want to be nice but still get your way. It is much more powerful to react using “yes, and I would add/ask/change…” as it doesn’t invalidate the point of view of the other person. It just adds a layer of your own thoughts and helps to keep the conversation on the topic. This strategy, of course, doesn’t fit any situation, but you would be surprised how often it works.

There are other words you may consider that will change the dynamics of the conversation. If possible use “we,” rather than “you.” That way you create a feeling of collaboration and that you are trying to help. For example instead of, “you may consider asking Jim to help you,” you can say, “we should consider asking Jim for help.” The outcome will be the same as the requestor will go to Jim, but the overall feeling from the conversation, for both of you, will be much more positive.

Pick your battles – it is stressful, and not even healthy, to push back on everything that doesn’t meet hundred percent your approval. There are some sacrifices worth taking, and there are some battles that are better not to be fought to build a social credit with the others. If you are known as a generally helpful person, people accept your “no” more easily without damaging the relationship.

Pick the low hanging fruit – always be willing to help with stuff that doesn’t cause any significant effort for you but may be helpful to others. I love using the example from my life when building new offices. Even though I was the boss, I would often step in for the office administrator and sit on the reception when they were sick or had to take care of other tasks. Of course, I wouldn’t do their whole job, but I would help with the urgent matters. I would meet and greet candidates coming for interviews and take mail. A minimal effort, a bit of inconvenience, but not much of a distraction. I could still do my job almost at a hundred percent, and I helped someone else in the process. As a side effect, I led by example and showed that we all work as a team and need to be able to step in for one another when needed. The one thing you need to be careful is not to get distracted too much. There might be lots of low hanging fruits that can cumulatively derail your primary efforts.

Keep your boundaries – never agree to anything that would violate your core values in a significant way. Never agree to anything that is unethical or illegal. If you are being asked something that fits these criteria be direct and honest about it. When saying “no” for these reasons be clear about what exactly makes you uncomfortable about the request and if there is a possibility to change it in such a way that it doesn’t violate your integrity. It is possible you just misunderstood the context, and things are not that bad as you believe. It is also possible that things indeed are that bad. If the person keeps pressuring you, then you need to walk away rather than ending up in jail or having your reputation tarnished by doing something unethical. Obviously, you also need to bring this up to the higher level management, or human resources department.

Be consistent and persistent – if you push back in a consistent manner and you are persistent in the way you explain your “no” to people, you are training them. Eventually, they will understand what your priorities are, and they will consider them. They will learn what things you can help with and what would create distractions and maybe even derail some other initiatives. Just make sure you don’t shut off the external world completely. You still want to be seen as a team player who is easy to work with and who cares about others. You just demand the same care in return.

Take it in your stride – even if you push back on a request from someone else don’t make a big deal out of it. There is no need to boast about the fact you said “no” to your boss. Just keep doing a good job and keep talking to the person you refused as if nothing happened. It is business as usual. We can still go for lunch together and have some laugh. It is not about you or the other person winning or losing. It is merely about a decision that needed to be done, you have done it, and that is the end of it. Being professional about this will help both of you to feel good.

If you believe the other person feels hurt don’t try to change your decision and help them. That would be succumbing to emotional blackmail. The one thing you can do is to naturally volunteer with something else, if it makes sense, to show that there is nothing personal in your decision and you are more than happy to work with that person and help out when it makes sense.

Pushing back may something sound scary, but it is a skill critically important and one you can learn. You deserve to have your life prioritized the way you want, not what someone else decides for you. By learning to push back the right way you will build up your confidence, you will feel less stressed, you will find more time for what is important to you, and you will be seen by others as a confident and competent human being.


What are your tips and tricks for pushing back and saying “no”? Do you take a firm stand? Do you try to be friendly? Do you go for some lame excuses to preserve good relationships? Or do you feel that it pays off to say “yes” as much as possible?

Photo: geralt /

I’m gathering material for a book about introversion, leadership and successful careers, and I would love to hear from you! If you are an introvert, who has a successful career and/or who moved to a leadership role, I would like to ask you to share your experience with me. I prepared a couple of short survey’s that will make it easy for you: Strengths of successful introverts (What strengths introverts have that can help them be successful?); Blueprint of a successful career (What is required for a successful career?); Strategies for introverted leaders (As an introverted leader what strategies do you use to lead and manage others effectively?)

Categories: Communication, Introverts

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2 replies


  1. How To Talk To Your Boss About Not Coming Back To The Office – The Geeky Leader
  2. Non-Promotable Tasks And A Successful Career – The Geeky Leader

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