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How to Say “No” – Even if you Hate Disappointing People

by Seth Williams on January 31, 2014 · 18 comments

  
How To Say No

The word “No” is something that most people HATE to hear.

It has a tendency to frustrate, disappoint, alienate, anger and annoy a lot of the people you say it to.

Unfortunately, it’s also a word that you and I need to say…   and let’s be honest, if we want to make good decisions and steer our lives in the right direction, we need to say it a lot.

To most of us, this seems like an obvious truth – but I’m always surprised at how difficult it is for people to say “NO” with confidence (without second guessing themselves in some way).

“NO, I’m not going to lower my price by 20 percent.”

“NO, I’m not going to let you live here rent-free.”

“NO, I’m not going to give away my service because you can’t afford it.”

“NO, I’m not going to work a dead end job for less than I’m worth.”

It’s always fun to fantasize about “telling people off” in our heads – but when it comes time to deliver this kind of blunt message right to someone’s face (without hiding behind an email or ignoring the problem altogether), this can be a seriously intimidating task!

Knowing When to Say No

For years, I used to overextend myself to others when they asked for my help…   and I did it all for one ridiculous reason. I didn’t want to disappoint or discourage them.

lbjWhile it seemed like a noble cause, the unfortunate truth was that I was hurting myself and the people around me. I was stealing time away from my family and friends, just to appease strangers who were offering me absolutely nothing in return.

I allowed a lot of people to have unfair expectations of me because I was a coward and didn’t have the guts to respect my own time.

Eventually, I just got tired of it. I was tired of sacrificing my family, my friends, my work, my income, and my sanity on the alter of “people pleasing.” I needed to start saying NO much more liberally.

But how was I supposed to know which opportunities to say “No” to? They always sounded great at first glance…   and what if I mistakenly turned down the wrong person or missed out of the deal of a life time?

I started asking myself a simple “qualifying question” whenever someone approached me with their hands outstretched. After hearing their proposal, I would ask myself:

“How does this fit into my long-term plan?”

What I found was that most of the time – it didn’t and if I was going to be completely honest with myself, there were a lot of things that I needed to start turning down right away.

When I finally realized the damage I was doing by saying “Yes” to everyone, I found a new sense of confidence and self-respect that allowed me to guard my time like the valuable resource that it was.

Communicating With Tact

Allowing yourself to say “No” is important, but it’s only half the battle. You also need to deliver this message in a way that doesn’t leave  others feeling hurt, angry and defeated.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have 100% of the control over another person’s responses, but there are certainly some ways you can communicate in a kind, respectful and understanding way.

Here are some examples:

“This isn’t a good time for me right now. I’m already busy with________.”

Fill in the blank with literally anything that you deem more important…  or just tell them “I’m too busy” and leave it at that (you don’t have to divulge details if you don’t want to). This will imply that you’re not just saying “No” for no good reason.

This will also imply that you’re a busy person and they should be coming to you well in advance if they need your help with something in the future.

“I wish I could help you right now, but…”

This is a great way to show empathy and validate the other person’s request, while still saying “No”. This kind of statement tells them, “Your idea is good and I understand where you’re coming from, but I won’t be able to do it for these reasons… Obviously, you should only say something like this if it’s true (i.e. – if you hate the idea, don’t imply that you wish you could do it).

“Give me some time to think about this and I’ll let you know.”

This is a good response to use when you’re legitimately unsure whether you want to pursue an opportunity or not. If someone has a decent proposal but you need time to think it through, feel free to drop this response to buy yourself some time.

Even if your ultimate answer is “No”, at least the other person will know that their idea was legitimate enough to warrant your careful consideration.

“This isn’t the right fit for my current clients/investors/audience/business model.”

Sometimes you’ll get proposals from people that simply don’t meet your needs. When you find yourself getting pitched on a solution to a problem that you don’t have (or if it’s obvious that they have everything to gain and you have everything to lose), you need to speak up and be completely honest. Tell them that you just don’t need what they’re proposing.

It may cause some initial disappointment on their end, but it will also save them from wasting a lot of your (or their) time.

“Have you talked to so-and-so about this? I think they could probably deliver on this better than I could.”

This is a great opportunity to leverage your network and solve a person’s problem (without having to do any of the actual problem-solving yourself). If someone asks for your help and you’re not well-equipped to handle it yourself, don’t be afraid to refer them to one of your contacts who can solve the issue.

Just because you don’t solve the problem first-hand, doesn’t mean you can’t plan a pivotal role in helping them find a solution.

“No, I can’t right now.”

It’s great to show kindness whenever possible, but don’t lost sight of the fact that you aren’t always obligated to explain yourself. Sometimes the right answer is “No” and that’s all there is to it. You have equal rights in every conversation and there are plenty of times when you need to put yourself first (especially when you don’t owe the other person anything).

Turning people down is something that some people struggle with more than others. Whatever your predisposition is, I hope you’re seeing that you don’t need to be afraid of saying “No.” Sometimes it’s just the right answer – and you don’t need to feel guilty about doing what is right for yourself.
Photo Credit: Sean Davis

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Randy Phillips January 31, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Very Good post, I say no a lot, and I cud learn some tact and be more empathetic.
I get a lot of sellers wanting full or more than full value for their house when it needs lots of work. I know its important to explain why I cant pay their price and be nice and understanding, cuz sometimes they call back and are much more reasonable.

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Seth Williams February 1, 2014 at 9:58 am

Hi Randy, thanks for sharing. I think I struggle with this too. It’s not always easy to get into the details with someone about WHY the answer is no, it’s easier to just walk away. I think sometimes it’s worth the extra effort, and sometimes it isn’t. Kind of depends on the importance of the relationship, and whether the other person is even willing to listen.

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Paul January 31, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Excellent article. Thanks.

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Seth Williams February 1, 2014 at 9:59 am

Thanks Paul!

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Galya January 31, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Since my kids reached the age of asking for things to buy, I’ve learned a few nice ways to say “no.” And it happens so often with kids that it’s very natural for me now to say these phrases instead of “no” to everyone else.

1. “ok, will see.” In my language that’s a definite “no way.”

2. “let me check my schedule at home.” I pretty much always have my schedule with me, but this is how I can buy some time to weight every con/pro of the obligation. This one I use when I think that actually there is a possibility this obligation will somehow benefit me or not doing this obligation may hurt me. And depending on many factors, I may say “yes, next week, month, year.” In translation to the “kids no” it would sound “put it on your list you want to buy.” I know I need to buy them presents, so if they really want this item, they will remember to put it on their list. When the time comes to buy a present (BD, holiday) I look at the list and based on the average cost, tell them what is the limit (ex. only 2 items from the list), so they can choose the items. The list could work for tenants’ requests too.

3. “I need to talk to my husband, partner, lawyer, garbage man…. before I can answer this” I use this one a lot and this is usually means, “may be, but not now, since I need to think about it.” In “kids no”, it sounds like “lets ask dada.”

And I do say “no” eventually, but it’s on my terms with my explanations of the “no” (why this “no” is better than a “yes”), not when I’m suddenly ambushed with a proposition. And the “no” does not actually have the word “no” in it. So, if someone asks me, can I live here rent-free, I don’t say “no, you can’t,” I say “you can live here for 5 days rent-free, and if by the end of the 5th day I do not get the rent plus the late fee, I will start the eviction process according to the lease. So, it’s pretty much not my decision they cannot live here rent free, it’s their decision and people like to have a feeling they are in control of their lives.

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Seth Williams February 1, 2014 at 10:06 am

Those are some great alternatives to saying No – thanks for sharing that Gayla! I’ll have to write those down somewhere so I can remember them. :)

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Sharon Vornholt January 31, 2014 at 10:25 pm

Seth –

We all have to learn to say no, and it is hard at times. The truth of the matter is that we only have so many hours in the day. We just can’t do everything that everyone would like us to do. Nice post.

Sharon

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Seth Williams February 1, 2014 at 10:02 am

Thanks Sharon. You and I both know how valuable our time is. It’s certainly not easy (or even possible) to meet the needs of every person who demands help. Discerning can certainly be challenging!

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Kevin Perk January 31, 2014 at 11:44 pm

Great post Seth!

You did a nice job discussing a very hard but very valuable skill to learn.

Kevin

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Seth Williams February 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

Thanks Kevin, I appreciate that!

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Jolyn Crawford February 1, 2014 at 1:47 pm

I always think about the “best interest ” of my client and my ability to serve them. If the equation is not positive on both sides if coin, I often just say that…and explain why.

Usually people will agree…based on my experience. If someone is asking me for my time, money or experience, I value that over their needs, unless the goal is mutual.

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Seth Williams February 3, 2014 at 10:44 am

Thanks for your input Jolyn – I like that explanation. Seems very logical, and hard to disagree/argue with (which is always ideal when you’re telling someone “No”).

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Justin Aymer February 3, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Thanks for this article. I am trying to get this going in my life. I like solving problems and creating solutions, but I don’t always have to be the person doing the work for others.

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Seth Williams February 3, 2014 at 1:05 pm

I hear you Justin, I think most of us know how you feel. It takes some real spine to be assertive and turn people down when you need to.

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Shaun February 4, 2014 at 2:00 pm

It can be hard to say no at times.
If you want to be able to help everyone and think you can do everything you will make the mistake of promising too much.
In the long run if you make promises and fall short because you overextend yourself it will hurt you a heck of a lot more than saying no, in a thoughtful and reasonable way like the ways you suggest.

My eyes were opened to this a little a couple years ago when I honestly just had no way to be able to help someone with a fairly easy request and I told her that I wouldn’t be able to help her and gave my reason and apologized for not being able to help.
She thanked me for my honesty and thoughtful response.
BOOM! All of a sudden the light went off that people can actually be reasonable if you are reasonable with them! :)

Also I think about what I really want as well. I would MUCH rather someone be upfront and tell me they will not be able to do what I need on the timeframe that I need it rather than say what they think I want to hear then drop the ball and leave me high and dry when I don’t have any time to find someone else to do the job.
The first person I will ALWAYS come back to because I new trust that they won’t tell me they can do something if they aren’t going to be able to. The 2nd person I will likely never trust with anything important again, barring some exceptional situation that caused them to not finish the job as promised.

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Seth Williams February 5, 2014 at 7:17 am

I love your last point Shaun. I would MUCH rather someone tell me upfront that they can’t deliver, than get dragged along for months only to find I’ve been talking to the wrong person all along. You can certainly do people a huge favor by being honest with them upfront (even if that causes some initial disappointment).

Thanks for sharing man!

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Frank Iglesias February 14, 2014 at 8:42 am

Good post! It’s important that we know when to say NO… we just have to be mindful of how we say it and careful with our tone so we don’t offend others.

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Seth Williams March 19, 2014 at 11:35 am

You got it Frank – thanks for checking out the post!

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