Introverts – here’s how to say NO and be taken seriously in the workplace

Introverts! Joanna Rawbone has advice on how to be assertive and effective, and to still be yourself.

I imagine a few of you read this headline with an increasingly puzzled look on your face and are now asking yourself ‘why is saying ‘no’ different for introverts?’ I also know my many training colleagues who themselves identify as an introvert will understand, but let me explain.

What’s the issue?

Many introverts have difficulty finding their own voice. This comes from years, maybe decades even, of being told to ‘be’ different; speak up, push yourself forward, stop being so quiet. This undermines their sense of self, their confidence and self-worth. Introverts long for their natural talents and behaviours to be valued by their employer and colleagues.

We all need to be able to say No powerfully in order to maintain our necessary boundaries. This is especially true for introverts who work hard to maintain the charge in their mental batteries so they can do their best work. 

This is an uphill battle in busy open-plan offices or when the business culture is one of back-to-back meetings. If we think lockdown and agile or flexible working has been a breeze, consider how many virtual meetings we’re in every day. 

What toll does engaging with the camera on your desktop, laptop, tablet or phone take? It’s more than eyestrain, I can tell you.

As experienced trainers, you’ll inevitably cover the art of saying ‘No’ in many of your modules, be that assertiveness, communication skills, team working or managing others. 

I know I do, and we’ve always known that an assertive No isn’t just about the words being used, it comes from that place of believing we have a right to say No. And that’s where it becomes more difficult for introverts. Those years of being told to be different erodes that belief.

Can you imagine how incongruous it feels to say yes knowing you don’t mean it?

I’ve also noticed that most of the introverts I work with dislike conflict and upset, so often feel uncomfortable about or are unable to say No for fear of the consequences. 

Because they spend so much time in their head, they are renowned overthinkers so can engage in a bit of catastrophising. The severity of the ‘what ifs’ of how people might respond, what others will think of them can act like a gag, preventing them from defending a boundary.

Can you imagine how incongruous it feels to say yes knowing you don’t mean it? I can, because I fell into that trap many a time until I found my authentic self.

And when introverts do say No, it may lack the assertive power required or is said angrily from frustration, neither of which is effective. Some introverts rely on their facial expressions hoping that their message will be detected by the other, but unless the person making the demand or asking the question has a high degree of emotional intelligence, this is unlikely to work.

And, I don’t encourage that as a viable communication method on it’s own anyway.

So, what’s the answer?

As already mentioned, our ability to say ‘No’ is one of the fundamental rights of assertiveness. But all rights come with responsibilities; it’s part of the deal. Let’s backtrack a moment though because assertiveness is misunderstood, often conveniently. 

Assertiveness is when I use ‘behaviour that stands up for my rights and needs, whilst respecting the rights and needs of others’. It’s not about railroading others or being the loudest voice in the conversation. That’s aggression and we often hear aggressive people claiming to be assertive.  


Here are five of my top tips for saying No as an Introvert.

  1. Think edge-of-comfort-zone. People talk about growth not happening inside a comfort zone but I have a different approach. The aim is to work at the outer edge of our comfort zones as this serves to expand the zone in subtle yet powerful ways. I’m a great advocate of a marginal gain approach as this delivers sustainable improvements.  
  2. Assume an assertive position. This requires some preparation; mindset and practical. Get clear on the right you are you standing up for. Quite often, it’s the right to be really heard. This clarity enables you to be more powerful and persuasive in your communications. And yes, there is a structure that makes this easier to say, but it needs to be felt and believed first. With rights come responsibilities and in this case it’s empathic listening on both sides and the potential of negotiation rather than settling for a stalemate, an impasse or upset.
  3. Consider using a conditional ‘No’. These are always great options as they’re less confrontational, which appeals to many introverts, and leaves the door open for further discussion and deeper understanding. ‘No unless…’, ‘No until…’, ‘No if …’ which leaves the door open for a conditional ‘Yes’. ‘I’d love to do that when…’ or ‘Yes if …’.
  4. No can be a complete sentence. Sometimes, your ‘No’ is unconditional and you shouldn’t be afraid to use it. You also don’t necessarily need to justify yourself or give reasons. This can still be done from a powerful but polite position. This is less common in the workplace but always better than beating around the bush which comes across as weak and uncertain, or saying yes with no intention of following through, as then you’ll be considered unreliable.
  5. Thank the other person if appropriate for their invitation, offer or request and then decline gratefully. ‘Thank you for thinking of me. As you know, I’m not comfortable in big meetings like that so can we start with something smaller so I can build my confidence?’ Most introverts want to be invited as the idea of inclusion is often appealing. We too are social beings but unless our mental batteries are holding sufficient charge, they’re probably going to experience overwhelm or worse by doing things because of FOMO.


People don’t always understand why introverts want to and need to, say No. It’s not because we’re antisocial, unhelpful or ‘difficult’. It’s because we need our own time to recharge those mental batteries. I find unstructured meetings with no clear agendas some of the worst for draining my batteries, especially in those busy, back-to-back cultures.

So be mindful when introverts say No – there are probably really good reasons.


About the author

Joanna Rawbone is the founder of Flourishing Introverts, a platform aimed to support and raise awareness of introversion in both the professional workplace, and personally.



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