My mom tells me that my first word was “No!” Even before I attempted “Mama” or “Dada,” I had mastered the art of pissing people off. I would say “No” even when my mom asked me if I wanted blueberry pie, and if I refuse blueberry pie, it’s time to call the paramedics.
That changed when I learned that being too fond of saying “No” could get me banned from playdates and sleepovers. If you wanted to be thought of as a nice person, you said, “Yes” as much as possible.
Then I entered the workforce. This was around the time that ‘team player’ became a required strength on job postings, so saying no was the fastest way to fail your probationary period or eventually get ‘that call’ from HR.
Moral of the story: I developed a phobia about saying no to people. If someone asked me to do something that was as appealing as electroshock, I would wince and say yes instead of risk hurting their feelings or making an enemy.
Is Saying Yes All The Time Worth It?
Depends on who you ask. For those who ask for favors, absolutely! For those who grant said favors- not so much.
Desperate to be perceived as a ‘team player,’ I worked long, unrewarding hours on tasks and projects that I either hated or wasn’t being compensated for. Sometimes it was both.
Don’t get me wrong. I did favors for people who readily helped me out in return. But there were too many instances where the colleague got the credit for my work and all I got was a headache and a reputation for being a pushover.
It was a hard habit to break. The Internet is full of how-to articles that instruct you in the fine art of saying no politely, and I’m pretty sure I read all of them. But I continued to say “Yes.” It wasn’t until I read this article that I faced an uncomfortable reality, which is this: by saying no, I was sacrificing my own needs in a way that went well beyond good teamwork.
So I Searched For a Solution
A lot of the how-to articles recommended the Band-Aid approach: just say no and let the other person deal with it. I wasn’t ready to be blunt: not in an office where who you know is almost as important as what you know. Instead, I looked for ways to say no without looking like an a**hole.
Therein lies the solution. Saying no is not offensive in and of itself. It’s how you say it. Screaming “No! Do I look like your damn assistant?” is going to burn bridges faster than saying, “I’m really sorry, but I’m working on a report for Joe. He needs it for tomorrow. Have you checked to see if Sarah can help?”
I should include a disclaimer: even the nice approach won’t work for the self-centered types who leave everything until the last minute. You can be so sweet that your blood sugar rises and they’ll still question whether your parents were married. Normal people, however, will get it and not think any less of you.
Below are some templates that can help you gracefully say no to both social and professional requests such as:
- Job offers
- Requests for help at work
- Party invitations
- Freelance work
Let me know how they work for you!
How to Say No to a Job Offer
Receiving a job offer is normally a reason to jump for joy. You’re still marketable! Someone wants you! Whee! Life is awesome!
Except when you don’t want the job.
Yes, this happens. You submit an application and resume and attend an interview, but by the time the hiring manager gets back to you, the opportunity doesn’t seem quite as golden. This can happen for reasons like the following:
- You feel that you are over- or under-qualified for the position.
- You researched the position or the company in more detail and found that your needs and goals are incompatible with the company culture.
- The company expects you to relocate, and you have ties here.
- You accepted another job offer.
- The company has an office dog, and you are a cat person.
This one can be tricky. Like I said earlier, relationships are as important as ability in the workplace, if not more. However, if someone offers you a job or a promotion that falls short of your expectations or doesn’t meet your career goals, you can say no without ending up on the corporate version of a ‘do not fly’ list.
If you received the job offer via letter or email, you can send a reply like the following:
Dear Name Of The Person Who Extended The Offer,
Thank you so much for the exciting opportunity to join your marketing team. As I mentioned during the interview, I’ve been an admirer of the XYZ brand for years and will continue to regard it as a trendsetter in the ABC industry.
However, after much consideration, I will unfortunately have to decline your offer. You mentioned that the position will require relocation to your Cleveland office, and after discussing the situation with my spouse, we concluded that moving is not feasible for us at this time.
That being said, I know at least three graphic designers who would be perfect for the role, one of whom is originally from Cleveland. Let me know if you would like me to send you their contact details.
Thanks again. If a position becomes available that doesn’t require relocation, I would love the opportunity to interview with you again.
I’ve turned down job offers and felt guilty about it, but soon learned that it was nothing to beat myself up over. As long as you’re professional and courteous, the hiring manager will have a positive memory of the encounter and may even remember you when something more suitable becomes available.
How to Say No to a Request For Help At Work
Take it from someone who served corporations for years before I started my own business: learning how to say no is one of the most important survival skills. Still, few things are more terrifying than turning down someone who approves your paycheck or has the power to back you for the raise or promotion you want. If you’re like I was, you said yes to everything and then scrambled to make it work.
You may have done your boss or co-worker a favor, but what have you done for yourself? Nothing, and that’s a problem. According to this study, the average worker gets a mere 12.5 hours of focused work each week. Being too helpful can hamper your career goals and, in extreme cases, get you fired.
So how do you prioritize without looking like an a**hole?
Let Your Calendar Say No
At one company, I made sure to account for every working hour throughout the week. We used Teamweek, which is a browser-based project management tool, to share our task loads with other members of the department. Anyone who checked could see when I was occupied and when I could spare the time for a quick meeting or help with a task. My calendar was saying no for me, and it was awesome!
Let The Boss Decide
If your boss asks you to do something, your workplace survival instinct should prevent you from saying, “No, can’t. Sorry.” Instead, let them decide whether the answer is no or yes. For example, if they send you a Slack message asking you to add last month’s figures into the company’s CRM system, you could say something like:
OK. If this is what you want me to prioritize, I will get right on it. However, this means that I won’t be able to get XYZ done for tomorrow afternoon. Please advise.
You’re not saying NO (smart career move) but your boss is getting the same message. Adding a new task will subtract from something you’re already doing.
The same approach works with a colleague is asking for help. I would say something like:
I wish I could help you out, but (Boss Name) has asked me to have these figures ready by the end of the day.
In other words, if you need my help, you’ll have to clear it with my boss first. Although I never like turning down a coworker who’s asking for assistance, assuming responsibility for the success of their project will interfere with my responsibilities, and my supervisor should be the one to say yes or no.
Remember: saying no doesn’t make you selfish or a jerk. You have a limited amount of time to accomplish meaningful work each day, and when you respectfully decline, you ensure that your daily schedule gives your own work priority.
How to Say No to a Party Invitation
Party invitations are ego boosters, just like job offers. Someone thinks you’re funny / cool / important enough to appear at their party. However, when you’ve got an obligation every night of the week, popularity becomes a double-edged sword. How can you please everyone and still have some all-important ‘me’ time?
Here’s a secret? You don’t have to say yes to everyone.
Yes, I know it’s hard to decline a party invitation, even when you really don’t want to go. Like you, I was raised to equate “No” with being impolite unless you’re a screaming two-year-old, and even then, your parents are going to make sure that you feel good and guilty afterward. You worry that by not attending a friend or relative’s event, you’ll offend the host and be pegged as uncaring in your family or social circles.
I’m not going to lie to you: there’s always a risk that this could happen, but it’s a lot less likely when you decline with grace. As long as your answer is honest yet considerate, chances are that the host won’t take it too personally.
When you say no, don’t over-explain. Doing so suggests that you feel guilty about the refusal. Instead, keep your response straightforward. For example, if you receive a verbal invitation, you could say something like:
- “Oh, wow, it sounds like it’s going to be an amazing party. I wish I could go, but unfortunately I have another commitment on that night. I’ll let you know if that changes.”
- “Thank you so much for inviting me. I would love to be there, but unfortunately, I can’t. I can’t wait to see the pictures on Facebook.”
- “I really wish I could go, but I have other plans on Friday. Can I contribute a bottle of wine for the occasion?”
One method I recommend for keeping answers concise is what I call the Slack method. It’s a popular communication app designed to convey information quickly, with minimal back and forth. Make your answer polite but assertive, meaning that you give a firm yes if you can accept the invitation or no if you can’t. (It’s even better if you’re using Slack to communicate, but if you aren’t, deliberate brevity is the next best thing.)
If you received an emailed or printed invitation, one of the templates below may be appropriate:
Thank you so much for inviting me to your New Year’s Eve bash. Unfortunately, Joe and I already have plans for that night, so I won’t be able to attend. I hope you and your family have a fabulous holiday and an even better New Year’s celebration!
Congratulations on being promoted to regional sales representative! If anyone deserves the honor, it’s you.
I wish I could attend your promotion get-together on Friday, but I’ll be going out of town with Sue and the kids that weekend. Maybe we could do lunch next week to celebrate? Let me know if you’re available.
Whatever you do, don’t lie. That makes you an a**hole, and a huge one if the host ever finds out. If you refuse an invitation to your sister’s holiday party, saying that you’ll be out of town attending a conference on that evening, and she sees Facebook photos of the bar-hopping you did instead, you’ll have some explaining to do.
You aren’t obligated to give an excuse. You may want to if the host is a family member or your best friend, either of whom might be put off by a vague refusal, but whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about putting your needs first.
How to Say No to Freelance Work
When you launched your freelance business, you may have been living off the fragile combination of savings, loans, and income from your first clients. Now you’re in the enviable position of having to turn down work.
This can happen for a number of reasons. For example:
- You simply don’t have the time to complete the work by the desired due date.
- The client’s budget is too low. As in really low or nonexistent. I’ve had some requests for free work in exchange for exposure, a dubious arrangement known as PIE (paid in exposure).
- The subject is outside your area of expertise and you know you won’t be able to do your best work.
Saying no to freelance work can be like walking a tightrope. Even if your calendar is full or the assignment is outside your preferred scope, you don’t want to deter the client from trying to hire you again. You may not be able to accommodate them at the moment, but they could be that future savior who swoops in with a juicy contract just before you’re forced to live out of your penny jar.
Even if a potential client offers you a project with a budget that will barely cover your morning Starbucks for the week, I don’t recommend ignoring the email. It’s rude or, at the very least, they may assume that you didn’t receive it and follow up. Instead, turn down their offer in a nice way: you never know what they may bring to the table in the future.
Here are some ways that you can say no without looking like an a**hole. These responses are equally appropriate for direct emails and Upwork messages.
Scenario 1: Refer Them to Someone Else
If you’re like most freelancers, you network regularly and have a list of professionals you either work with regularly or have a reputation for excellence. If you receive an offer that’s a better match for a contact’s skill set or the work can’t be completed within the requested time frame, you can benefit both the client and the contact by passing it along. The client will be happy that you spared them the effort of searching further and the freelancer will definitely appreciate the work.
Here’s a template that you can modify to match your situation.
I received your email regarding the web copy project for the natural health supplements website. It looks like an awesome opportunity and I’m glad you reached out to me. Thank you so much!
Unfortunately, I’m going to have to decline because my schedule is booked until the end of the month (or whatever reason). However, I know another freelancer who could be an excellent fit because she has a nutrition blog and has contributed to several health supplements websites.
Here is a link to her website / Upwork page. I hope that she can assist you with your project so that you can get up and running soon.
Thank you once again for contacting me. Please keep me in mind for future projects, as I would welcome the opportunity to work with you.
It’s important to note that you should only do a referral if the potential client strikes you as reasonable and has a budget that is fair compensation for the expected workload. If you want to get on a freelancer’s sh*t list, the quickest way is to send them a nightmare client.
Scenario 2: Refer Them to Resources That Can Help
This template is great for occasions when you can’t take on a project and don’t know anyone else with the right expertise.
Thanks so much for your email. This natural health supplements website looks like an exciting project for sure, and I appreciate that you reached out to me.
Unfortunately, I am unable to work on your project right now due to commitments that leave me unavailable until the end of the month. You may, however, consider reaching out to (insert name or Upwork profile of your favorite subject-relevant blogger). She writes regularly on the subject of health supplements and her website / Upwork ID states that she is available for freelance assignments.
Thank you again for thinking of me. I really appreciate it, and hope that you will keep me in mind for future projects.
With both scenarios, you were able to politely turn down a client without leaving them high and dry. You demonstrated professionalism and respect by presenting them with alternative options that are legitimate and relevant, and trust me, they’re going to remember. In my experience, you may even hear from them again or even have them refer colleagues to you. (I’m not exaggerating for the sake of a happy ending- I got one of my best clients this way.)
Check Your Excuses At The Door
You’ll notice that throughout this article, I’ve emphasized the importance of not making excuses. I get why people do it: you don’t want the person you’re refusing to think you’re blowing them off for no reason at all. While there’s nothing wrong with providing a context for your answer, some people will use an excuse to contest your decision.
For example, if you tell someone that you can’t switch shifts with them because you have to help your brother move, they may offer to pay for a professional mover in order to free you up. While they would have to be pretty desperate to get out of a scheduled shift (or pretty rich) to make such an offer, the point is that when you present an excuse, you also give the person an opportunity to overcome the obstacle that’s preventing you from doing what they want.
When you really can’t or don’t want to do something, a polite “No, I can’t. I’m sorry. But thank you for thinking of me” should suffice. Going the TMO route will give the impression that you feel guilty about saying no, and they’ll pounce.
Being a people-pleaser is a surefire way for your life to spiral out of control. Contrary to what you may have been taught, ‘no’ isn’t an abbreviated four-letter word. When delivered with kindness and tact, it can prevent you from being labeled an assh*le and make it possible for you to be much more effective when you do say yes.