How to Say No

January 18, 2011

“It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”Leonardo da Vinci

“Live your daily life in a way that you never lose yourself.  When you are carried away with your worries, fears, cravings, anger, and desire, you run away from yourself and you lose yourself. The practice is always to go back to oneself.”Thich Nhat Hanh

Saying “no” is one of those things that no one likes to do.  We’re all busy, often too much so, and yet we are constantly bombarded by new opportunities.  People ask for our help, for our time, for our attention every day. We all, as good, compassionate human beings, dislike having to tell people “no” when they ask us for help or for some other commitment.  We want to help, but sometimes we can’t.  How do you handle the act of disappointing someone else?  How do you make healthy decisions for yourself when every day offers chances to overfill your schedule?

Think about the value added for you. What will you get from the commitment you’re being asked to make?  If the answer is “none,” that’s a good sign that you should say no.  This applies to psychological value as well as physical or tangible value – will you enjoy the commitment for itself?  Will you enjoy it for the chance to help someone else?  Value is about your whole experience, including, but not limited to, your altruistic enjoyment of helping someone else.  If you won’t get anything from the project, not even the value of helping out, chances are it’s not a good fit.

Be realistic about your ability to add to the project or task you’re being asked to perform. This goes hand in hand with considerations about value added for you.  Think realistically about how busy you are and whether or not you can really give the new venture your full attention.  Understand that if you are already fully or overly committed, you will not be able to offer the new project your best work.  In such a scenario, saying no is the most considerate thing, allowing the asker to find someone who can give the project the attention it deserves.

Prepare some tactful “no” responses. Even once you have decided that saying “no” is the right solution, the act of saying it can be difficult.  To make it easier, have some prepared responses that make it clear that your “no” is based on a consideration of what is best for the asker.  Responses like “I’m not the best person for the job; maybe you should try ____” or “I’m currently too over-committed to be able to give your project the attention it deserves” make it clear that your denial is about valuing the other person, not about a disinterest in their proposal.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to accepting that saying “no” is not rude, and is often the most courteous, considerate, and effective way to handle a situation.  The person asking for your help will appreciate your honesty (definitely more than they’ll appreciate you committing to something you can’t fully deliver on).  Even if they’re disappointed that you can’t be a part of their proposal, they’ll be more likely to think of you next time – this kind of polite straightforwardness is all too rare in today’s world and will get people’s attention.

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Feedback: What are your ideas for effective, tactful ways to tell people “no?”

5 Responses to “How to Say No”

  1. CupK8 Says:

    Since the major reason why I cannot help people is often because I’m too busy, I use that one on a regular basis. I often find the more disappointing “no”s are for ultimately minor things like social events, and I’ve gotten increasingly used to saying No with not a bit of guilt. Sometimes I just feel like a cup of tea and a movie serves me better than staying out all night.


    • I totally get it. After a long day, I often find that the best thing for my mental processes is to reduce stimulation, something that’s not well-served by going out to social events and such, or at least not really big ones. Of course, whatever the reason, I encourage everyone not to feel bad about making decisions that put themselves at the center of the decision-making process.

      • CupK8 Says:

        I hadn’t thought about it that way – in terms of stimulation. But we just talked about that last night. It makes sense.

  2. Jessie Says:

    I love to help people… sometimes to the point of getting myself in trouble. There comes a point where you just have to stop and tell yourself, ‘Okay, I have to take care of myself,too, or I won’t be able to help people at all.’ (Kate, you had a great analogy in class using a vegetable garden — you can’t share your produce if you can’t take time out of your day to look after it.) Taking time to recharge isn’t being selfish — it’s necessary.

    • CupK8 Says:

      I was going to respond saying, “Excellent point,” and then you referenced my own quote, so I can hardly toot my own horn.😉

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