How to Say No: The Ultimate Guide

Saying No

(Image: Gunnar Pippel)

This is my guide to say no for busy people such as busy professionals, entrepreneurs, and coaches. The principles apply to anyone who wants to say no.

Do you hate to say no? Are you always trying to be nice to others at the expense of yourself?

Well, you’re not alone. I used to hate to say “no” because I didn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. For example, whenever I got requests for help, I would tend to them even though I had important work to do. Sometimes the requests would take 2-3 hours each or beyond. At the end of the day, I would forgo sleep to catch up on work.

Over time though, I realized that saying yes came with a set of consequences. Every time I said yes, I would have to set aside time and mental energy which would be taken away from my existing needs. While okay when dealing with a small number of requests, as my site grew and my clientele increased, I became weighed down with a never-ending stream of requests.

I began to have no time for myself as I felt the constant pressure to always agree to everything, to be there for everyone, to put my needs on hold. After years of doing this, I realized that my time was no longer my own — it was taken over by what others wanted from me. I felt tired, burnt out. I realized that saying no isn’t just a nice skill — it’s necessary if you want to:

  1. Navigate today’s overly connected world, where people expect you to always be there, to accept every request.
  2. Create your personal space. People do not know what’s on your agenda. Unless you learn to say no, they can only act based on what they want, which is what they want for their goals. Saying no is about setting your boundaries so that people know what your priorities are.
  3. Achieve fulfillment and happiness. When you say no, you control your time. You control what goes into your days. And you get back to being in the driver’s seat of your happiness.

Why We Find It Hard To Say “No”

To say “No”, first understand why you resist it. Here are common reasons why people find it hard to say no. Do these apply to you?

  1. Afraid of being rude. I was brought up thinking that saying “no,” especially to people who are more senior, is rude. This thinking is common in Asia where face-saving is important. Face-saving means not making others look bad.
  2. Wanting to be agreeable. You don’t want to alienate yourself from the group because you’re not in agreement. So you conform to others’ requests. Again, this is especially so in Asian societies where group conformity is heavily valued.
  3. Fear of conflict. You are afraid the person might get angry if you reject him/her. This may lead to an ugly confrontation.
  4. Not burning bridges. Some people take “no” as a sign of rejection. They feel dissent which leads to a frayed relationship later on.
  5. Fear of lost opportunities. You are worried that saying no means closing doors.
  6. You want to help. Deep down you really want to help the person. You don’t want to turn them away, even if it may eat into your time.

Yet when you dig into each reason, you will find little basis for it. Why do I say that?

  • Saying no doesn’t mean that you are being rude.
  • It also doesn’t mean being disagreeable. It’s silly to resist saying no just to conform — we can’t conform with everyone on everything or we’ll become no more than an average, always mirroring what others tell us.
  • Saying no doesn’t mean creating conflict — it’s just asserting your needs and boundaries. People who severe ties just because you say no probably aren’t very solid friends to begin with.
  • Saying no also doesn’t mean a loss of opportunity. It’s more important to say yes to the right things and the right opportunities rather than saying yes to everything.
  • Last but not least, while you may want to help others, there are costs to be factored in — the other things on your agenda, the other people you have to serve, etc.

Ultimately, saying no is your right, your prerogative. Every “yes” comes with its costs — the time, energy, and commitment to honor the request. This cost may be small for each yes, but little trickles of yes’es over a long time will eventually create a huge deviation from your goal.

And it all boils down to this: What are your goals? How important are they to you? And will saying yes to random requests take you closer or further away from them? It doesn’t mean that you start rejecting everything that doesn’t fit your goals, but it means that you need to be more conscious in how you live your life and the things you allow to enter your space, time. Understanding that if you want to create a life of your own, you need to control the things that you do in your daily schedule.

How to Say “No”: The Complete Guide for Busy People

After years of saying no, I’ve learned that saying no is a fine art that depends on the situation and who you’re dealing with. There is no perfect way to say no and you can’t control how the person will feel, but it doesn’t change the fact that you need to do it. Here are my tips.

1) Don’t over-complicate it

If you want to reject the person, just do so. Thank them for their invite but let them know that you can’t take it on due to other circumstances. Don’t over-think or over-complicate it, because the more you think about it — and I’m referring to requests that you already want to reject — the more it takes up your mind space and time.

For example:

  • If you’re busy with other engagements:
    • “I’m not able to take this on as I have other priorities at the moment.”
    • “I’m tied down with something for now and won’t be available to do this.”
  • If what the person is pitching doesn’t fit you:
    • “This doesn’t meet my needs now but I’ll keep you in mind.”
    • “Sorry but I have to give this a pass due to [X reason]. Thanks for having me in mind though!”
  • If it’s some other reason:
    • “I’d love to, but [insert X reason]”

There’s no need to over-explain if it’s not relevant; you also run the risk of the person replying with a lengthy response to try to change your stance, when all you’re trying to communicate is a “No, thank you.” Just communicate what’s needed, and move on.

2) Share an alternative

One way to ease the “pain” of rejection for the other person is to offer alternatives. This is especially so if the person is hinging everything on their request to you.

For example if I get a speaking request that I’m not a match for, but I know someone who will be a good fit, I’ll pass the contact along. If I get a coaching request that’s out of my scope, but I know helplines that can help, I’ll point them that way. If I know someone else who can assist the person, then I’ll loop them in with their permission.

This is just an optional step done out of goodwill. You don’t have to do it just because someone is asking something from you; you just do it if you happen to have a good suggestion.

3) Give a mini-yes

Sometimes you want to say no because the request is incompatible with your needs, but you don’t want to say a complete no because you do want to help in a smaller way. Here you can give what I call the “mini-yes.”

One thing I struggled with before was the constant requests for meetups. While I’m excited to meet with each person, the problem is that there are too many requests to realistically do so. The Dunbar’s number is very true, which says that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships—and that’s for communities with a very high incentive to remain together, like in a village or in a company branch. In today’s world where people are dispersed (meaning more effort needed to coordinate, meet, etc.), the number is smaller. At a certain point you overload because the effort to have a close personal relationship takes a sizable amount of emotional energy, along with implicit wants and expectations, and being required to do so for every connection will quickly drain your ability to get anything done.

What I do is I give a mini-yes if I can’t take the request but I want to help in some way. I let them know that I’m not able to do X, but I’m able to do Y which is a much reduced, lower involvement step that I can offer. This means instead of meeting up, offer to help via email. Instead of committing headfirst into a project, help on the side. Instead of accepting an invite to join a board, which comes with commitments and responsibilities, to give advice on an ad-hoc basis, as and when you can afford to.

4) Defer

If you are interested in the request but you have some reservations, use what I call the “deferring” method. Know that you don’t have to give an answer right away and you can create some space for you to think. Here you can say,

  • “Now is not a good time as I’m in the middle of something. How about we reconnect next week?”
  • “Let me think about it first and I’ll get back to you.”
  • “Sounds interesting, let me think over it first.”

This is great when dealing with high-pressure salesmen, or if you are too bogged down to think properly at the moment. This gives you time and space to think over it rather than feeling pressurized to decide on the spot. Sometimes you may well decide that this is not for you after having the space to think about it. Deferring also gives you time to come up with a proper rejection, if all the person is doing is rebutting you rather than accepting that you don’t want it.

5) Reject by category

If you get repeated requests of a certain category and they are becoming a drain, assess if they are a fit with your goals. If not, consider rejecting the entire category.

As I mentioned in #3, I used to struggle with constant requests for meetups. Being an entrepreneur, people seem to assume that you should be open to meet at any time and on any day, which isn’t true. I have regular work days, in fact longer work days because of the need to hustle. I also developed many 1-1 relationships in my industry and around the world — true for many entrepreneurs and coaches — and each of them began to weigh down on me as I was expected to attend meetups, to meet for coffee/tea/lunch when the person was in town, to give free advice, etc.

When you look at each request singly, it isn’t a problem and you do want to be involved, to help. But when you have a network of a thousand of people, essentially the odds are that someone will be in town every week or there’ll be a request to Skype/email to chat/discuss about something on someone’s agenda every few days, that’s out of your list of to-dos. This quickly drains your time and it’s difficult to get anything done when you’re constantly switching from meet-up to work mode, from topics A/B/C/D to your own Quadrant 2 work.

What I’ve learned is to reject an entire category of requests rather than look at each request individually. For example, if you’re getting too many meetup requests that are weighing you down, opt out of meetups fully. Any request that you do accept (with family, etc.) is an exception, not the norm. Or set a very restrictive criteria to filter requests of a particular category, like limiting the speeches you do to 20 per year, or by topic. Or taking only clients that can afford $X fees. Such as:

  • Meetups: “I’m completely tied down with projects A and B for the next 6 months and won’t be available for meetups. If there’s anything I can assist over email instead, let me know.”
  • Speeches: “I’m only giving speeches on topics X, Y, Z and won’t be able to contribute meaningfully to your event. Thank you for having me in mind though; let’s keep the discussion open for future events.”
  • Media Interviews: “I’m fully booked and I’m not taking any interviews for now. But if you run a platform with X readers/listeners, contact me here.”

Here it’s not about rejecting the person but recognizing that the request requires a commitment that you can’t offer at this moment. Anything else you do accept is the exception, not the norm. Segmenting requests by category, then dealing with it by its category helps you detach the request from the person and look at it objectively.

6) Have an autoresponder

One way to manage expectations is to use an autoresponder. An autoresponder is an automated reply that your email client sends to anyone who emails you. Most email clients today have this option in the form of an “Out of Office” or an “Auto-Reply” feature. You can type an autoresponder that tackles the general requests, so that 90% of those who contact you can get the answer right away.

For example:

“Hi, thanks for your message! Due to a high volume of messages, I’m not able to respond to each email individually. Please don’t be offended as it is true for even my close friends.

1) If you’re asking for coaching advice, here are some resources: X, Y, Z
2) If you’d like an interview, I’m currently only doing interviews with platforms with >X reach. If this applies to your publication, please reach me at [link to media page].
3) If you’re requesting for meetups, I’m currently tied with other projects and won’t be able to tend to any meetups.

For other requests, please go to [link to contact page with other instructions].

Thank you so much for your understanding!

Best Regards,
[Your Name]

You can also check out other email autoresponder ideas here.

An autoresponder works best if (a) you get a high volume of unsolicited mail, such as people you don’t know trying to ask for help, or (b) most of your emails are not related to your core work. I don’t recommend it if you are just receiving internal company mail or mail directly related to your work.

7) Get a personal assistant

Back in my corporate job, I noticed that the vice president and directors would have a secretary. The VPs would have a dedicated secretary each, while the directors of each department would have a shared secretary with the others. Each secretary would help their boss with admin stuff, like handling their emails, calendar, and calls. At that time I didn’t really understand why they would need that. I mean, can’t they just multi-task and practice better time management? I thought.

After I started my business and as my business became established, I began to understand why. When you are in a position where many people are trying to get to you, when you constantly receive many requests, it becomes difficult to deal with this and still get work done, specifically high-level work. There are little details involved with each request like logistics and coordination. Furthermore, the higher your position, the higher the noise-to-signal ratio, meaning receiving a high number of irrelevant or unhelpful requests vs. relevant, useful ones. The process of sorting, thinking, and rejecting becomes very exhausting over time. The problem here is “cognitive load,” the mental energy needed to handle each request.

99.9% of people will never need a PA, but if you get so many requests that it overwhelms you, consider if you need an assistant. Weigh the pros (time saved, being able to offload your admin work, having a single-point-of-contact for all communication) vs. cons (costs, having to manage another headcount) of getting one. The great thing about having an assistant is that they serve as your gatekeeper, where they reject all requests that don’t fit you and help you decide the ones that should get through to you, based on your preset criteria. Something to consider if you get so many messages that it becomes a full-time job managing them.

8) Block the person

Hopefully you’ll never have to use this method, but if you ever meet people who can’t take no for an answer, who keep abusing your contact details, blocking may be the way to go. I face this a lot with persistent and irresponsible marketers, an issue when you run a public site. You can easily block email addresses with modern email clients or create an email filter to delete messages from such addresses.

9) Don’t reply

Last but not least, not replying is also a form of reply. Running a public platform, I get too many messages to review products/services, check out new apps, meet up, get into calls, among other things. It’s not possible for me to read every single message, much less to reply to everyone and have a life outside of my inbox — I tried for years and it made me miserable. So I’ve learned to only reply to what I can, while letting go of the rest. This is outside of emails relating to my core work like my coaching and work clients — I revert to every single one of such emails as they are my priority messages.

Of course, here I’m referring to messages that are outside of your work responsibilities and close personal relationships. If you have a commitment to someone/something, then you should be reachable and accountable.

How About You?

Remember, saying no is important and it’s okay. Rather than shy away from saying no, it’s about learning how to do so. Bookmark this post so that you can refer to it in the future. Also share this article if you have found it useful. 🙂

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