"The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful person say no to almost everything." - Warren Buffet
Buffet got it right when he claimed that saying no is what makes you successful. Denying little requests opens up your schedule to say yes to the right opportunities. The ones that make a change in your career and that matter to you.
If you decided to click on this article, you most likely have your inbox filled up with messages of colleagues asking you to give feedback for their work, team members wanting your support in their newest project, or cold pitches by salespeople that tell you to jump on a call with them.
But straight up saying no can feel hard because you do not want to harm your reputation. No one wants to be the "difficult boss", "unreliable co-worker" or unapproachable. This kind of image can damage your career prospects.
Saying no does not have to be hard. We collected six for you to decline a request professionally and politely. You'll learn how to finesse your tone to make a good impression, even when you have to disappoint someone.
When to say no
Before we go deeper into the tips, let's look into when it makes sense to say no. Adam Grant had to learn the hard way whom he offers support to - and which offers he chooses to decline. The American psychologist wrote a book about givers' surprising success: people who consistently help others with no strings attached. After the New York Times magazine ran a cover story about his book Give and Take, his email inbox filled up with requests from people that asked Grant for all kinds of support.
As much as Grant might have wanted to help all of them, he had to learn the hard way that he can't. He realized that being a giver did not mean being a people pleaser.
"Being a giver is about saying yes to some of the people (generous givers and "matchers" who aim for quid pro quo, but not necessarily the selfish takers) some of the time (when it won't compromise your own goals and ambitions) to some of the requests (when you have resources or skills that are uniquely relevant)." - Adam Grant
Each yes comes with the cost of saying no to other chances, including your free time and relaxation. To achieve work-life balance and be great at your job, you have to learn to say no to tasks, projects, and even opportunities that may not align with your short- and long-term goals.
When you need to decide if you want to say yes or no to an opportunity, ask yourself: Am I closing the door on something, or am I opening the door for better opportunities?
Tip 1: Be concise and clear
"If you want something done, ask a busy person." This famous proverb shows how being a responsive worker who takes over tasks easily can lead you to requests piling up in your inbox. That's why it's so important sometimes to reject assignments and opportunities that are not top of your priority list.
If you have to say no - be clear. You don't want to keep your counterpart wondering, especially if the task at hand is time-sensitive. Not even taking the time to sit down and decline in an email can seem thoughtless and can close the door for future collaborations (see tip 4). But there's a difference between being concise and being rude.
Do you see the difference? Just a couple more words, and the tone is a lot more respectful while still giving a clear "no". This leads us to the second tip.
Tip 2: Kill them with Kindness & Be Polite
Some people are scared to seem "rude" or "unhelpful" when saying no. You can easily get that kind of reputation if you answer so fast and short that it comes off as harsh. But saying no can be graceful and even feel empowering to receive your message if you kill them with kindness.
People want to feel seen and appreciated, even when you have to deny them their request. So let the other person feel good about themselves! You might have heard of a "shit sandwich" when giving feedback to an employee, but it also works perfectly when you have to say no. A shit sandwich works simply: You start on a positive note "This sounds like an interesting event"), tell them the bad message ("But unfortunately I won't be able to attend as a speaker."), and end with kindness ("I'm sure you'll have a successful conference in any case!")
Some formulations you want to use to be kind & polite:
- Thank you for thinking of me.
- Sounds like a great project/event/idea, but this is not for us.
- I don't have enough time on my plate to offer you quality help.
- "Sadly" or "unfortunately"
Tip 3: Give your Reasons - but without giving an opening
You might want to explain to the other person why this particular weekend or week doesn't work. Providing a brief explanation can let the other person know that it's not neglect but that you are simply unavailable. However, you don't need to feel compelled to offer your reasons if the person is a taker, aka someone who takes your arm when you give them a hand.
You want to keep your no as simple as possible with takers, not give them an opening to argue their way into your schedule.
In the first version, you risk the other person trying to talk you into helping anyways ("If this week doesn't work, we can always do next week."). In contrast, the second one clearly closes the door. Another simple solution is to write, "I will let you know when and if I can." It changes the power dynamic and lets you reach out tothemwhen you have an opening instead of having them knocking on your door every day.
Tip 4: Keep the Door open
Sometimes you have to say no, so you can say yes at the right time. For example, you might have to say no to a project that doesn't fit your current career goals, so you can give an empowered yes when the right project ends up on your desk.
You don't want to burn bridges by declining an offer. A good relationship with your network is key in accelerating your career, so occasionally, you want to keep the door open when you say no. "I'm unavailable right now" or "I don't have the capacity at the moment" are simple phrases to indicate that you're open for a similar opportunity in the future.
Use these formulations with care because you don't want to give the other person false hope that your no could eventually turn into a yes. When your no is flexible and malleable, it can seem unreliable or dishonest. At the same time, it's reasonable to state that while the answer may be no today, things could change in the future.
Tip 5: Refer them to an Alternative
A simple referral can be a huge help for your counterpart. Introducing them to another person that can take over the job or that is even more suitable for the task can be worth taking your time, especially with people you work with long term.
Even suggesting another time in your own calendar can be a compromise you can agree on. If you get the same requests repeatedly, you can collect a document with your most common referrals (books, people, courses, etc.) to make it easier for you. If you want to learn how to connect two people, check out our blog post "How to introduce two people over email."
Tip 6: Understand people's strategies
"The pushy ones" usually get what they want in life. You might have experienced this yourself: You hired the freelancer who checked in again and again, not because they are better but because they were persistent. People have their strategies to get what they want. If you want to avoid signing up for things that do not move you forward in your career or business, you need to be aware of these strategies - especially when it comes to sales.
Some of the most common strategies to get you to say yes:
- Urgency: "This offer expires at midnight and will never come back."
- Social Pressure: "Other people have donated X much."
- Free Offers: "Start your free trial."
When we understand them, we can also let go of our instant response of "well, in that case..." and analyze what is truly beneficial for us.
The Easiest Way to say no
Let's be honest here: There are only that many hours in the day, and you do not want to waste it with crafting polite yet concise emails while leaving the door open for future collaborations. Yes, you can use all of these tips in your daily life, or you can spend your time more efficiently doing what really moves your career forward.
With Flowrite, you can turn a few bullet points into an effective email that declines opportunities you are not interested in politely and opens up space for you to take on the right projects and tasks.