Saying No

Saying No: Part Two – How to Say No

Last month, I talked about the importance of knowing when to say no. This month, I look at how to say no without burning any bridges. It’s not rocket science, but it does require some empathy, diplomacy, and a healthy amount of self-esteem.

If you are anything like me, you may find it difficult to say no for fear of offending the person asking, appearing selfish, or being crippled with guilt for months afterward. If the mere thought of saying no makes you break out in cold sweat, read Part 1 of this post first to help you figure out if you should say yes or no in the first place. Once you have determined “no” is the way to go, read on for tips on how to do it right.

How to say no

How to Say No the Right Way:

  1. Do it quickly. Don’t dawdle. Unless you’re ready to help out (which you’re not, if you’re reading this), give them as much notice as possible to line up an alternative. You will do more damage by leading them on than by saying no quickly. If you can’t help, the very least you can do is respect their time.
  2. Acknowledge that the answer is not what was hoped for. You’re saying no but there is no reason to forget your manners. Make it clear that you are aware of the consequences (e.g., they would have to seek help elsewhere or come up with an alternative solution) but that you must decline.
  3. Provide a (brief!) reason for saying no. You don’t need to go into details but it’s a good practice to provide a brief explanation. Whether you’re working on another project and don’t have the time, you’re not comfortable with the action being asked of you, or perhaps you’re short on resources and can’t afford the investment – whatever it is, a simple reason provides a sense of closure for the person asking and reassures them that you would have helped if you could. As with #2, don’t over-explain. Remember, you are trying to preserve the relationship with the person asking, so treat it with the honesty and respect it deserves but don’t give them a lengthy sob story. You need to have a reason; you don’t need a Hollywood-worthy plot. And who knows, perhaps the reason you provide for declining is something the other party can alleviate, removing the obstacle to your participation (e.g., a bride can let her maid of honour wear a dress she already owns or purchase the one she wants her to wear herself if it meant her dear friend can now be a part of her special day).
  4. Do not be overly apologetic. This is a mistake I’ve often made in the past and it took a mind shift to see the error of my ways. When you think about it, you don’t actually have anything to be sorry for. Being asked for something implies that you have a choice: agree or decline. Being a real-life grown-up, you’ve obviously thought about this and determined it is not in your best interest to agree to the request. You’ve made an informed decision. Don’t ruin it by presenting it in a way that undermines it. If you are overly apologetic, you create an impression that you’ve done something wrong and an expectation of atonement for it in the future. All you did was exercise your decision-making powers. Treat it as such and nothing else.
  5. Provide an alternative solution if you can. You may not have the time to help right now but it may be possible next month? Or you can recommend another person for the job and are willing to reach out to them on their behalf. Or, perhaps, you would be free to take on the task if they took on one of yours to free up your time. Whatever it is, if you are able to provide a measure of assistance on the terms you are comfortable with, offer it. If nothing else, it shows good will and demonstrates that you have thought about this and are willing to help, just not in the way you were originally asked for.
  6. Follow up at a later time. Show an interest in the outcome by following up at a later time. Reach out to see if the problem was resolved or the project successful. Perhaps your schedule has freed up and you would like to see if there is anything else left to do that you could help with. Or you have thought of another idea that might help them. Perhaps you recommended someone else for the job and want to make sure they were able to connect. Or perhaps that person thought of another way you might be helpful? Reaching out shows you are invested in helping them succeed, even if you are not able to contribute to that outcome directly.

Not sure how to apply all this to your particular situation? See this handy list of 10 real-life examples of how to say no, from not lending money to a friend to turning down an unwanted promotion to skipping out on bake sale duties.


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