Just blurting out no, no, not on your life, or flying into a rant about the unfairness of a request is not generally a good strategic or safe approach to sorting whether you will do a specific piece of work. Gut feel or seat of the pants answers are rarely career-enhancing, rather answering any question requires preparation and a scalable process.

Step 1: Understand!
Step back and listen to what you are being asked to do. Listening delivers value in multiple ways including demonstrating that you are taking the request seriously, have empathy for the requestor and it provides time to gather the data needed to answer the request. Remember, if you are not engaged enough to listen there is no way you will be able to connect with the person making the request which can lead to hard feelings if and when you say no. 

        Considerations and suggestions:     

    1. Don’t say yes as a tool to buy time to say no. If you like irritating people this is the tactic for you.  Saying yes so you can turn around and say no when you get back to your office ends up sending a bad message. The person you said yes to will feel betrayed.
    2. Take the time you need to parse and understand the request, your needs, and desires. Don’t fall prey to the impending action. I recently had a headhunter call, text, text and email me within a five minute period with what sounded like a great gig but if I was interested I needed to send my particulars in the next few minutes — I responded that any substantive response would have to wait until I did my due diligence.
    3. Use techniques such as Socratic questioning to gather the data needed to make an informed choice and to provide context when giving a response.

Step 2: Respond 

Give an honest, straightforward answer. When necessary, provide context for your decision but avoid rationalization or prevarication which invite you to change your mind. No one is happy to be refused, it ok for them to be unhappy, you are not responsible for their happiness. Deliver your answer with empathy, remember your reasoning my seem perfectly obvious, however, your decision might not.

        Considerations and suggestions:     

    1. Don’t make false excuses.  Lies, when found out, destroy trust.
    2. Separate the refusal from rejection.  Saying no is a statement about your capability and capacity not about the person requesting the work (even if it is, try not to make it about the person).
    3. If necessary, help adjust the requester’s expectations for the future based on your capabilities and responsibilities.

Step 2.5 Negotiate (optional) 

When you have wiggle room and want to find a way to say yes but you can say yes based on the current environment, a discussion is in order.  Negotiation helps to define the requestor’s value proposition for the work which provides additional insight for a decision. This process only works if both sides of the transaction can compromise.

     Considerations and suggestions:     

    1. Ask for help prioritizing the work currently on your plate in relation to the work you are being asked to perform. 
    2. Offer alternative approaches or tradeoffs.  For example, can the due date be changed or perhaps, can the work be broken into iterative components.
    3. Recognize that negotiations can fail and that you need to be willing to say and stick with no.

Have a simple process of determining whether you say yes or no any piece of work that could end up on your plate. Without an understanding of your options and how to say no, your backlog, and work-in-process will at some else’s mercy.