‘No’ is not a bad word. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Many people feel guilty about ‘disappointing’ a friend who wants to meet up for dinner, or ‘abandoning’ a co-worker who asks for help on a project. They feel that they should always be ready to help, even if they’re exhausted or simply not comfortable with accommodating the request.
However, there’s no shame or blame in listening to your needs and being honest about what you can, and can’t, give. Here are some ‘nice’ ways to say no, while still seeming supportive and encouraging.
1. ‘I’m swamped right now, maybe after (name time frame).’
Let’s say somebody asks you to volunteer for a committee, or join the office jogging group. This lets them know that you’re not saying no because you’re against the idea—you just have a lot of commitments, and probably will be for some time. Giving the time frame leaves the door open, but also prevents them from asking until you’re ready to seriously consider the offer.
2. ‘I can’t help you right now because I’m in the middle of something, but what if you…’
A co-worker asks you for help on a big project, or your friend wants you to organize a baby shower. You don’t have the time, but you can still be supportive and offer information or a referral. ‘Let me give you the contact numbers of the suppliers I used in my last party!’ or ‘Joe handled a project very similar to yours. What if I give you his email?’ Remember, there are many ways to help, and sometimes a good lead (which takes just minutes to share) is enough.
3. ‘That’s a really great idea! I wish I could help, but…’
Sometimes people approach you with a plan that they’re personally passionate about, and obviously proud of. They want you to help, and part of you is flattered that they thought of you. The way to handle this (so you don’t end up over-committing time or resources) is to be honest about your own limitations but generous with your praise and encouragement. Make them feel that you’re behind them, at least emotionally. Sometimes all people need is a pat on the back and a kind word.
4. ‘Let me look at my schedule and get back to you.’
Many times we say yes to a request without a clear idea of our prior commitments. Don’t feel guilty about asking for a little time to think about whether or not you’re ready to take on another responsibility or deadline. Just so you don’t leave a person hanging, give a definite day when you’ll give a reply.
This line also gives you time to check your own feelings about the matter. Will you really enjoy being part of this project? Is this something you can do wholeheartedly, without feeling resentful or cornered? Remember, saying yes to everything can hurt your relationship in the long run. You’ll disappoint a co-worker by giving half-baked work, or you’ll fight with a friend because you ‘blame’ her for being too demanding.
5. ‘It’s not quite the path I’m pursuing now, but I’ll be sure to keep you in mind.’
Let’s say somebody comes to you with an exciting deal or opportunity, but you know that it’s not aligned with your goals or needs at the present time. Maybe you’ve decided to cut back on work to spend more time with your family, or are considering a career shift and would like to develop skills in other areas. You can opt to share these goals with the other person, just so they can see your ‘refusal’ in the proper context. You’re not saying no because you don’t like what they’re offering—it simply doesn’t fit into the big picture now, and nobody can fault you for that.
6. ‘I’m really not the best person for this.’
Assess the favor or request and ask yourself if this is something you can do easily. If it’s not your area of expertise, you’ll spend a lot of time and energy on it simply because it doesn’t come naturally. It’s okay to tell the other person that—and don’t be afraid of looking stupid! Everybody has a core specialization. ‘I’m a writer, but I write articles, not advertising copy. I know somebody who does this, though…’ and then you can give a referral. In the long run you’re actually doing that other person a favor, by pointing him in the direction of the best person for the job.
7. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t.
Actually, you don’t actually owe anyone an explanation for saying no. There’s nothing wrong with taking charge of your time, your schedule, or your work-life balance. A simple and direct ‘No’ should suffice, and it won’t look cold or abrupt if you say it in a firm but respectful tone.