A Six-Step Strategy on How to (Nicely) Say No

May 9, 2022

by Carey Nieuwhof

Learning to say no is key to effective leadership.

It’s difficult because when you’re starting out (like I did 20+ years ago) with almost no people, no money, and lots of time on your hands, you end up saying yes to just about anything to get something started.

When you don’t have anything, you’ll jump at anything that comes your way. (I’m not recommending that as a strategy. I’m just saying that’s how it begins for many of us).

But eventually, your opportunities exceed the time available to fill them. So you work more hours. Get more efficient. Learn some time management.

But then you hit another wall. And you realize:

I will never be efficient enough to handle it all.

Some of the things (okay, maybe a lot of things) I’m saying yes to are counter-productive.

Yes to everything means no to the most important things

If I keep working this hard, I will burn out before 40 (I defied the odds and burned out at 41)

No becomes your friend. I’ve posted about that before. And, sometimes, our aversion to saying no is rooted in a desire to please people and not disappoint them. That’s all well and good, but at some point, saying yes to everyone is going to result in disappointing everyone.

But how do you learn to say no without being rude?

If you don’t master that skill, you will never manage your priorities well, or you might become a bit of jerk while trying to do that. That’s the issue I want us to zero in on.

I’m going to walk you through a strategy that I’ve used to deliver a ‘no’ that makes people still feel valued.  It works whether you have an assistant or not. It combines the type of words you use with some practical steps to help people get what they want without getting you involved.

Step One: Say you’d love to meet.

Try starting the conversation or email with something like I’d love to meet with you or That’s an interesting idea! Thanks for sharing it with me. I would hope these statements are true (and it’s almost always true in my case…I want to meet with far more people than I can).

It lets people know you care about them. And you began the conversation with a yes. Not a no.

Step Two: Affirm their intention.

Just because you might feel bad about saying no doesn’t mean you need to make them feel bad about asking.

Take a few sentences to value their idea. Or let them know you understand why they would want to get together. For example, you could say something like, “I totally see why you’d want to talk with me,” or “This sounds like an incredible opportunity.”

You’re on their side and want to be helpful even if you can’t meet with them.

Step Three:  Don’t commit on the spot. Ask for a follow-up.

I get requests almost every week to meet with people when they see me face to face.

I almost always tell them to send me or my assistant an email to set it up. Believe it or not, over half never do.

Interpretation? The issue probably wasn’t that important to them, and the meeting likely wouldn’t have been a good use of either of our time.

But smile when you say this. Don’t blow them off. If you have an assistant, this is a great place to get him or her involved.

Give them your assistant’s email.  If the request comes in via email or DM, send it to your assistant for follow up. If you don’t have one, relax, the strategy works regardless.

Step Four:  Let them know you can’t help, but someone else can.

If the email or text (I’m quite protective of my cell number, so I rarely get requests to meet via text because all those people are already on my priority list), that’s when my assistant and I start to redirect.

A bridge sentence helps so much here.

Something like “While I’d love to get together, I’m afraid I can’t…” or “That’s such a great idea. I think I know someone who could serve you better. Let me introduce you,” or “I’d love to, but I’m afraid my schedule just isn’t going to allow it in the next while. I’m so sorry.”

Step Five: Be Firm.

You will get a few people who insist and persist. At that point, you’ll need to make sure your answer is direct. Let them know that as much as you’d love to meet, you’re not going to. Being firm while saying no sounds like:

  • “In order to honor my other commitments, I’m going to have to decline.”
  • “I’m so sorry. That’s not going to work.”
  • “Thank you, but I’m going to pass.”
  • “As much as I’d like to…I can’t. I’m sorry.”

Step Six: Thank them.

Always be kind.

Close kindly on every transaction.

Just because you couldn’t help them doesn’t mean their request isn’t valid.

So thank them for being passionate about the issue or reaching out for help. You may deny the request, but you want to honor the relationship.

You could say something like:

  • “But thank you so much for asking. I really appreciate you and all you’re doing.”
  • “That was so kind of you to think of me. Thank you, and I’m sorry it won’t work out.”

I know what you’re thinking…

“But what if you miss some great opportunities by saying no too often?  What if you get it wrong and you should have met with someone?”

To deal with that, I always keep one or two one hour calendar slots open each month for people who aren’t regularly in my relational/work circle but who might be interesting to meet with, even if it’s not 100% strategic.

It’s a pressure release valve on your calendar too, and sometimes some great stories come out of those meetings.  If not, I’m doing for one what I wish I could do for everyone.

Saying no is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership. But you can get better at it and still be nice about it.

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