We’ve all been there: tired and stressed, with a desk full of work and a calendar jammed with more to come. But when a colleague asks for help, “no” might not be the best answer—even if it’s your first instinct.
You might need reciprocity later. Perhaps the team needs to make this client happy. And your boss might notice your extra effort. I’m not suggesting you always say “yes” at work. However, there are some productive responses besides a knee-jerk “no”; some of which have benefits that will flow back to you like a lazy river of karma.
Next time, try one of these instead of “no”:
1. “Let’s see what it entails”
Not only is this a reasonable response, but also an effective one. It helps focus the discussion on the outcome desired and some of the resources required to make that happen.
2. “Is it a priority?”
This ramps up the scrutiny of the question in No. 1. But, again, it’s reasonable and not negative like “no.”
3. “…and why is it a priority?”
Now, this query gets at the heart of things. It helps focus the analysis on whether the task or project is crucial. Certainly, it might be. But, then again, it might not. Probe the “why.”
4. “How does this fit with our other projects?”
This is a more nuanced way to assess the importance of the task at hand; asking this question helps uncover how the work fits into the bigger picture. And it never hurts to take a step back and check on that.
5. “Can it be broken into smaller pieces and given to a team?”
With this approach, you show you want to help brainstorm a solution. You’re not offering your own effort yet, but you are showing an empathetic tone and giving helpful input.
6. “Can it be done on a different schedule?”
This approach is similar to No. 5, but the question is different.
7. “What do we need to accomplish the task?”
With this response, you are almost suggesting that you will help. But you are trying first to nail down precisely what’s needed to get the job done.
8. “I can help [say when]”
In this example, you
are offering qualified support. State clearly when you can help to avoid confusion.
9. “I can give you [describe it] kind of support”
This response is a different version of No. 8. It’s helpful. But it’s also not unqualified, unlimited help. Be specific with the skills you are willing to lend.
10. “Let me think about how I can help”
While some might think of this as a stalling tactic, getting a chance to contemplate the challenge and what you can offer might spark some great ideas. Take a moment to reflect and get back to your colleague (unless you’re being asked to help co-workers escape from a burning building).
11. “Yes, but…”
With this response, you’re clearly giving help, but you’re still making clear how you’re framing the assistance. Maybe it’s something like this: “I can help but
I need to be done by 5:00.” Or, “I can make those calls for you, but
I can’t do the research, as well.”
This one is pretty straightforward. The situation, the client or other circumstances might prompt you to, simply, say: “Yes!” Bosses and co-workers (and often clients) notice those who say yes. So, fear not that your effort will be invisible. The yea-sayers are also the folks who get the most willing partners on the projects they seek a helping hand on, as well. Doubt me? Say “yes,” and you’ll see.
The point is, when you’re asked to help at work, there are at least a dozen things to say besides “no.” I’ve found that saying yes at work to projects or helping colleagues or pitching in at a deadline usually pays dividends at some point.
Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C.; Sydney, Australia; and Cleveland, Ohio for major publications including
The New York Times,
The Wall Street Journal, and was associate editor of the
Plain Dealer's Editorial Page before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. A version of this story first appeared on the 12 Most blog.