How to Say No Like a Pro

By Leigh Harper, October 10, 2017

Saying no: None of us particularly like to do it, but it’s unavoidable. Dishing out “no thank-you’s” is essential for maintaining work-life balance and avoiding feeling overwhelmed. In her book, “The Best Yes: Making Wise Decisions in the Midst of Endless Demands,” Lysa TerKeurst puts it this way: “Whenever you say yes to something, there is less of you for something else. Make sure your yes is worth the less.” Consider these factors the next time you’re facing a big yes-or-no decision.


What tasks are you OK with turning down? Say no to opportunities that are nonessential to your job or personal goals—that might be things like speaking engagements, invitations to celebrations, or serving as a chair on charitable or consulting boards. Unless the person wanting your time is of particularly high importance (see below), saying yes should not feel like an obligation.


Prioritize your family and supervisor, which simultaneously means empowering yourself to say no to anyone whose ask conflicts with one of theirs. When in doubt, ask yourself, “How would saying yes to this person affect my commitments to those whose trust and respect I need to protect the most?” Invitations or favors coming from colleagues, friends or neighbors should come second unless they interfere with someone else.


Approach every invitation with honesty and humility, because doing so will enable you to say no to any opportunity you’re not qualified for or simply don’t have the margin to handle well. Say no to projects for which you know you don’t have the expertise needed to get the job done. (But don’t confuse this with opportunities that require you to push yourself or learn something new.)

Similarly, no matter how glamorous a gala or other celebration may be, if the time and travel required to attend cuts into precious time required to make a non-negotiable deadline, say no. You may have a fear of missing out, but the consequences you’d face as a result of getting behind in your workload aren’t worth it.


Honesty is the best policy. In most cases, you don’t need to justify or provide a lengthy explanation to decline an opportunity. A simple, “Thanks for passing along this opportunity, but I’m unable to participate,” is sufficient. Don’t hesitate with your response either. A quick and straightforward response will be appreciated more than a wishy-washy or delayed reply. Doing this could unintentionally project apathy or unprofessionalism.


The nature of the invitation will dictate the best response method. Generally speaking, it’s appropriate to return emails with emails, phone calls with phone calls and so on. Exceptions to email responses would be if further explanation is needed, or if the no could have an adverse effect on your relationship with the sender. In those cases, consider a phone call or meeting up for a cup of coffee.


The reasons you say no will vary, but remember: Ultimately, you are the one tasked with stewarding your time well. As TerKeurst says, “Don’t get so locked in to your overwhelming schedule that you haphazardly spend your soul.”

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