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How I Learned to Say “No” – The 5 Step Formula That Always Works

How to learn to say no

It’s funny, because, in college–they tell you to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way. Throw yourself into it. Take on any “extra” project that you can. Go above and beyond. Lose sleep, stay up late. Saying “yes” is the way to get ahead.

That was me for a really, really long time. Did I have enough bandwidth to take on that extra project? Yes! (Nope.) Would I be okay staying at the office until 11pm to finish that brief? Yes! (No. I have a life.) Did I still want to take on extra responsibility at work even though it might not necessarily mean a raise? Of course! (Um, no? What the hell?)

The pressure for “saying yes” hits you from all sides–work, your family, your friends–all expect you to give a resounding “yes” at every turn. It seems that we’ve been programmed to believe that saying anything other than “yes” makes us a bad friend, daughter, girlfriend, wife, sister, and so on.

Even worse, we expect to hear “yes” from our loved ones and coworkers. For those who try to lie to skirt around the truth–it’s just, “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to dinner last night–something came up.” Or “I can’t make a coffee date work this week–sorry, I’m just too busy!” Which, of course, only results in relentless hounding of the person you’re trying to avoid, and solves absolutely nothing.

I realized this after I wrote this article, Stop Asking People To Coffee–the emails started pouring in.

Responses I heard went something like…

“This article hit me on so many levels. I get so many emails from people asking for my time, my input, etc–I just feel bad saying no, so I end up spending hours away from important things–like work, or my family, in order to help these random people I don’t even know, and get absolutely nothing in return.” 


“I loved your article–I hope everyone who reads it takes your advice! The requests from people for my time are getting so overwhelming. I just don’t know how to say no!” 

So, as a result, I thought, maybe we should collectively talk about how to say no. 

I don’t really remember when I developed this skill, but I know it was because I couldn’t mentally handle all the yes. I had buried myself in a pile of yesses (yes’?) and was going to lose my mind. Therefore, I started saying no, and I’ve now gotten to a place where I’m comfortable doing it without cringing.

So, when I receive a request for time I just don’t have, for money I just can’t spend, or something I just downright don’t want to do–here is the step by step framework of “saying no” that has become so crucial to me.

1. Start with “thank you”

This might sound a little strange saying “thank you” at the beginning of a conversation where you’re about to let somebody down, but it will make all the difference. First of all, any type of request for your time, your presence, etc–means that you are valued, loved, and respected. This is a really wonderful thing, don’t forget about this. Whether it’s an invite to brunch, a networking request to meet for coffee, the invite to participate in a special group, etc–be thankful.

So, the first sentence of your response should be something like this.

“Hi Janet!

First of all–thank you so much for the invite to your get together. Rumor has it that you throw the most wonderful parties and I am so honored to be on the invite list 🙂 …” 

See what you did there? You said thank you, and already dished out a lovely compliment and went out of your way to make her feel special.


2. Be very honest and to the point

Now that you’ve established how gracious you are, you need to cut to the chase. If you need a frame of reference, perhaps think of the latest season of The Bachelor when Ben swiftly nixed all of his potential wives with absolutely no hesitation or apology.

Something like…

“To be totally honest, with my schedule the way it is at the moment, I’ve had to set up certain parameters in order to maintain my life and sanity. That being said, I really try not to make plans on Sunday mornings, as that is my time to spend with my husband, as he travels during the week and Sundays are the day we reserve strictly for each other.” 


“Because of my busy workload, I am only taking on paid speaking opportunities at this time. While I would absolutely love to volunteer my time as a panelist (and I LOVE what your organization is about) it’s very important for me to focus on my clients first and foremost–there unfortunately just aren’t enough of the hours in the day, you know? I appreciate your understanding!”

3. Offer value 

This is a point that so many people often miss, and its also one that saves whomever you’re telling “no” from being mad or hurt when you deliver the news.

Offer value. Whether it’s offering to help coordinate details of a baby shower even if you can’t attend, saying you’d still love to buy a round of champagne if you can’t attend a bachelorette party, or offering links to helpful resources if someone has reached out to you for professional advice. For example,

“I know you mentioned you had just started your blog and were looking for some resources to get started! I know I don’t have time to meet, but I’d still love to help! Here are some resources I found incredibly helpful when I was a new blogger…” 

4. Say thank you again 

This might sound like overkill, but truly, it isn’t. It’s really hard to go overboard on thank you’s–so I promise, twice in the same email really isn’t too much.

“Again, thank you so much for thinking of me, I know it will be an amazing networking event, and I’m truly honored to be asked to speak as a panelist!” 

5. Stay in the loop 

Before you sign off, let the person know that you still care about the outcome. A simple, “please let me know how it goes with your website launch” or “I can’t wait to see photos of the brunch, I’ll be living vicariously through Instagram!” or “I hope these resources were helpful, please let me know what you thought after you give them a read!

This honestly doesn’t require any extra time on your end, but it reiterates the fact that you aren’t simply blowing them off. Circling back to the beginning–being asked for your time means that you are valued. So you should care about the outcome. Make sure whomever you’re delivering the “no” to knows that you truly do care!

Do you say “no” enough? Why not? What’s stopping you?