Monday, April 15, 2013

How to Say No Without Saying No

A lot of people have trouble saying no, both at work and in their personal lives.  It can be for various reasons - they are people pleasers, they don’t want to reject/offend anyone, or they don’t like to be put on the spot so they agree, to make the situation go away.   

The bigger lesson here is to also think about what you are saying yes to and WHY.  This will also inform your decision on what you are saying no to.  It’s important to think about this with every single request of your time and energy because every time you say yes to something, you are saying no to a lot of other things too.  You can’t do it all and you can’t have it all.  So this is where knowing what you want and having priorities comes into play.  Even if you don’t have goals or know what your life is about long term, try knowing what you like and what you don’t like.  

There are three main ways to says no without saying no.  At the core of it, you are asking them for more information so you can make an informed choice, buying time to come to a well-thought out decision, or stating what else you have going on.  These tactics are in everyone’s best interest instead of being passive aggressive.  Here are a couple of tips how to say no effectively and politely.

1) Buy time

Don’t feel rushed to provide an answer on the spot.  Buy yourself time by letting them know you are open to hearing their request, but need to get back to them.  This transfers the onus to something or someone else.  This gives you the space to consider what they said, what they want, what it means you will have to do, and if you can fit that demand into what you have going on.  This way if you have to say no, they can see you took their request seriously by considering it a lot and you can choose how you get back to them - in person, phone, email, as appropriate.  

  • Let me check my schedule.  
  • If I’m able to, I’ll let you know.
  • Let me check with my wife/husband, boyfriend, boss, supervisor, accounting, HR rep, Legal, etc.
  • I have a personal policy that I consult my family/accountant/lawyer/life coach/priest first OR think about it for 24 hours, 3 days, a week, or 2 weeks.  

2) Say it with a reading-between-the-lines message

When you have to say no or even deliver bad news, instead of blurting it out, you can say the same message by IMPLYING it with a firm/final decision.  This makes it easier to take the bad news while being neutral in your stance.  You should not feel bad for doing what’s right for you.  

  • I am not comfortable with that.  OR  I would prefer not to.  
  • I am on vacation that week.  OR  I’m in a meeting.    
  • I’m not a big fan of ______.  OR  Me and _______ don’t mix well.  

3) Agree to disagree

When saying no or disagreeing with someone, acknowledge and validate their request or viewpoint so they feel heard and understood.  Then, give your decision.  

You can also address the request in two parts.  You liked/support the idea or request, but realistically/practically speaking, you can’t help or have the resources.  So you deliver the message with enthusiasm, but without giving the impression you can help.  

  • Yes/I would, however...
  • That’s such a great idea.  I wish I could, however...
  • Oh you know what, I have ...
  • If I didn’t have this deadline/meeting, I would have loved to help.  Ask me next year!
  • I’m flattered you thought of me!  Have you tried/asked Sarah? She’s really good at Excel.

Also, don’t feel the need to go into long, detailed explanations on why you are saying no or how you came to your decision.  It just makes the matter worse and most times you don’t owe anyone an explanation of that magnitude.  The more detail you give, the more you give room for debating/discussion on something that is a closed matter.  Be polite, firm, diplomatic, and if you want, end the conversation with if you change your mind you will let them know, if you think of someone who might be able to help them you will refer them, or if there is a similar project much more aligned with you to have them reach out to you again.  It’s always nice to end a conversation on a high note and the possibility of something else.  

***New “rule” - when you ask me a question for anonymous advice and I answer it, could you write an anonymous comment so I know you read the post?  You can just write “Thx!” or something!  :)  

As always, I usually tweet any new posts I have. And anyone can email me questions and I respond only via this blog, not to your personal address. It usually takes me 3-4 days to answer.

I also write over at under Hollywood Executive Assistant.


  1. This was so helpful !! I really have a hard time saying no sometimes. I feel guilty everytime I do and honestly I feel a little resentful and stupid that I said yes afterward. My work life is jam packed and my family life is even more busy. I will try to use some of these via email and see if that helps. Thank you again.

  2. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec Asst.April 14, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    Anonymous - I am so glad you liked this post! I hope you enjoy older posts too and I write over at as well.