The No. 1 phrase you should never use when having hard conversations with your boss

Ian Ross Pettigrew | Getty

As we return to pre-pandemic work hours and arrangements, how do you handle a manager who feels you should still be on call at all hours?

You want to be a team player and remain professional. But when your manager repeatedly ignores your workload, primary responsibilities and schedule, pushing you to the verge of burnout, it's time to set limits. There are better ways to do so than simply saying "no."

If your boss gives you assignments above your pay grade, use these phrases to set boundaries without seeming childish, rude or unprofessional:

1. "Hold on, let me think it through."

As a public speaking coach, I always tell people to consider their audience before they speak. Take a minute to process your boss' request.

If they want you to handle a last-minute client project on a Friday at 5 p.m., for example, pause and ask yourself: Has this been a pattern as of late?

If your boss generally respects your time and is trying to solve a truly urgent problem, they might deserve the benefit of the doubt. But if they're picking on you — and only you — that's another story. Are they at least offering to pitch in and help?

Either way, set your feelings aside. You're not saying "yes" or "no" yet; you're simply taking time to evaluate. 

2. "What is most important?"

If you're overloaded with commitments and your boss wants to add more to your list, it's fair to ask which of your other responsibilities can be lessened or put on hold. 

You could say: "I can't manage all of these tasks as well as we want. Is there something that could take a backseat or that could be handed to someone else?"

Don't lead with an impatient or frustrated tone. You're not telling your boss how you feel; you're helping them calculate what's realistic. 

3. "I'd like to help, but I'm not able to right now. Let's find a workaround."

If your boss' objective seems reasonable but their timing is unrealistic, let them know.  

Explain why you're unable to accommodate their request, but go a step further and suggest: "Maybe there's another way we can handle this." 

Then brainstorm a few potential solutions. Perhaps you can get the task done on a Saturday morning before the kids wake up, in exchange for taking a half-day the following week.

4. "I'm sorry, I can't."

Negotiations are a fact of life. Sometimes you'll lose, and sometimes your boss will lose. They know that.

If your position is reasonable, you need only to stand your ground. Remain polite and resist the urge to over-explain. They asked. You said no.

Ironically, while conflict seems like a negative in the short term, mastering the art of "no" sets clear expectations, lowers the chances of similar conflicts in the future, and establishes a foundation for a respectful ongoing relationship. 

5. "Sure! Happy to help."

Somewhere in this conversation lies an assessment of your own self-interest. Never mind how you feel or what you think is fair. 

Ask yourself what will make you happiest in the long-term: Will working an extra hour on Friday save you a headache later on?

If your ultimate goal is to buy a car or support your family, for example, and that extra hour helps you get the raise that pays for those goals, maybe it's worth saying "yes."

John Bowe is a speech trainer, award-winning journalist, and author of "I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection."  He has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney's, This American Life, and many others. Visit his website here and follow him on LinkedIn.

Don't miss:

Here are things you should never say to your boss
Here are things you should never say to your boss