The Helpful Executive PA: Why Saying “No” is an absolute “Yes”


Lindsay Taylor explains the power of the “No!”

Being helpful is, you tell me, a top attribute of a successful Executive PA and I totally agree with you. The very nature of your role is assisting and being helpful to ensure your manager(s), office and organisation are operating as smoothly as possible. You are very often that “go to” person because your team trusts in your ability to get things done.

I know. I’ve been there. As a former EA working for a team of attorneys in a busy legal department in Chicago, I was Helpful-personified. I also kept an objective view that being helpful doesn’t necessarily mean we say “yes” all the time.

We are not being helpful to ourselves, our sanity and wellbeing if we always say “yes”. We need to be really clear about where our work priorities lie – what the boundaries of our role are in order that we concentrate our time and energy on the right things. Saying “no” then is an absolute “yes”.

Helpful ways to say “no” (without actually saying the word “no”!)

I’m going to introduce you to 6 different ways of saying “no”. Use the “no” that fits best with your situation. Remember that someone has probably asked you to help them because they believe you are capable and able to do it. Thank them for asking you.

A really helpful phrase to use which will help the other person understand your point of view and perspective is “I’m sure you will appreciate…” In return you can use the phrase “I appreciate…” to demonstrate your understanding of their point of view.
Think about how you deliver your “no” message – the way you deliver your message will have an impact so concentrate on an assertive tone and body language to add gravitas to your message.

1 The “Final Word” No
“Thank you for asking me. I would prefer not to do this. As I’m sure you will appreciate I have a deadline to meet for preparation of the management meeting packs.”

2 The Rescheduling No
“Whilst I can’t do it now, I could certainly help you later.”
Make sure you keep your promise to the person you have agreed to help out. Make a diary note or set a reminder. This ensures your credibility in the workplace for keeping your word.

3 The Problem Solving No 
“I’m not in a position to help you, have you considered phoning technical support?”
Suggest an alternative solution to the person asking for your help.

4 The Negotiating No
If I help you with X, then I would really appreciate your help with Y. Is that okay?”
Get the other person’s agreement to this negotiation. This is a great opportunity to help each other out by tapping into individual expertise, skills and love for doing a particular aspect of work.

5 The Reprioritising No 
“I’m happy to do this, however I’ll have to reprioritise my workload a bit. What would you suggest?”

6 The “One Last Time” No
“I know I’ve helped you in the past and I’ll help you again this time. As I’m sure you will appreciate, with my demanding workload my priorities need to be with xxxxx so from now on could I suggest you ask technical support/follow the printed procedures I’ve produced. Is that okay?”

Get the other person’s agreement to this suggestion. In some situations you can produce an “operators manual” or typed instructions/procedures that can be followed without having to interrupt you. Think about whether the person is asking for your help because they don’t know how to complete the task themselves. Some time and effort upfront from you to train and show them how to do something will have benefits in terms of saving you time and effort in the long term and also developing the skills of other team members.


About Author

Lindsay Taylor

Lindsay Taylor is Director of Your Excellency Limited, an executive coaching and training organisation in the UK. Your Excellency Limited have an extensive portfolio of learning and development offerings including Administrative Professional training, coaching and qualifications. As a former PA herself, Lindsay has first-hand experience of the diversity of the Administrative Professionals role and the challenges faced. Lindsay delivers training and coaching across the world in fun, down-to-earth sessions that provide memorable and practical learning and skills. Lindsay is the proud author of the award-winning book “A-Z Pearls of Wisdom for Executive PAs”. For more details please contact Lindsay on +44(0)7930 194147, email [email protected] or visit

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