Ways To Say No With (Virtual) Kindness
Saying no is a delicate art form especially for women. A well-known study on gender stereotypes in corporations revealed that colleagues were more offended when women declined requests and less likely to reciprocate when she did.
I witnessed these reactions firsthand equally from both men and women. It was very discouraging to say the least.
The obvious workaround is to never say no and sidestep the negative backlash altogether. Sometimes this is the smartest thing to do. But while emotionally understandable, this route short circuits many careers by fostering burnout, resentment, and anxiety.
We cannot change society and the culture we live in, but we can be more thoughtful of how we navigate these waters. The time is now to update how we say no.
Here’s my recipe with a pinch of kindness:
1. Find something good – appreciate the communication. This starts the message on a positive note despite the pending refusal. You can say you are flattered, honored, or grateful for being asked. I recommend tapping into an emotion you genuinely feel vs. one that looks good on paper. Use a thesaurus to brainstorm. Can the recipient really tell? No, but you will. Own your words. Writing is more than a tool, it’s an expression of truth.
2. Say something else – I once worked for a man who never said “no,” but said no to everything. Here are what seemed like his favorite phrases:
- I prefer…
- Not right now
- It’s a pass
- I don’t think so
- I’m not sure
- Can I get back to you?
- Wish I could say yes
Folding in these phrases into your message can subtly send the right message without the harshness of the “no” itself.
3. Give a reason – Good decisions are not made in a vacuum. The best negotiators I know make an offer and are able to justify their position. People are much more likely to be understanding about an outcome if it sounds reasonable to them. By the way, your comfort level is a fine reason. The key here is not to over-explain. For example, “I don’t feel comfortable committing to that because we are shorthanded right now.”
4. Punt – the classic move that couples pull out in each other’s absence can also be repackaged for the office. This is as simple as saying you have to check with your boss. But be careful, sometimes the aggressor might up the ante and suggest talking to your boss directly. In these cases, hold your ground. Simply say, “I don’t think that will be necessary. We have regular meetings to review requests like this.”
5. Offer an alternative – When I sat in on pitches for new television series and the head of development hated an idea, they would say, “This sounds really compelling. Not for us at the moment. Although it would be perfect for XYZ network!” In the same vein, it’s good practice to leave people with a sense of hope. Instead of taking on extra work yourself, suggest checking in with one of your colleagues that you think might be available. Even if they come up short too, you are then passing along somebody else’s “no” in which case you’re only the messenger.
Overall empathy goes a long way in this type of email. As does brevity. So always try to make the message short, sweet, and to the point.
Let’s take a look at some of these suggestions in action.
When Asked To Take On More Work
I am so grateful you thought of me for [PROJECT]. It sounds very exciting, but my schedule is jammed right now with the holiday exodus.
Please do keep me in the loop. Have you talked to [ALTERNATIVE NAME] about maybe helping out?
Let’s get coffee to catch up sometime.
- Friendly and to the point.
- This assumes a warm connection and a project you genuinely want to be involved in from the sidelines.
- The offer of an alternative resource demonstrates goodwill.
When Being Heavily Pursued By A Recruiter
I really appreciate you reaching out about [POTENTIAL JOB]. I am not exploring new opportunities along these lines right now, but would welcome the chance to stay in touch.
In particular, please let me know if you see anything in [INDUSTRY] that might be a good fit for me.
All the best,
- Recruiters work for a commission from the hiring company, not you. It’s a real hustler’s game. So just remember your name is just one in a sea of LinkedIn profiles.
- Despite this, responding is still a good idea to maintain a relationship.
- Make them work for you while you have their attention by hinting at what you might be interested in – whether it be a particular company, new industry, or expanded responsibility.
- The good ones will remember you for your tact, honesty, and interest.
When Asked For A Connection You Don’t Really Have
Great to hear from you! I know the feeling. I don’t know [CONNECTION] well as we crossed paths awhile back during [PREVIOUS JOB].
What else can I do to help?
- In the age of social media, people can appear to have thousands of friends, but it’s not possible to know everybody well enough to make a confident introduction.
- Offering to do something else is a beautiful touch here especially when responding to a friend looking for a job.
All in all, consider this practice in exercising your professional boundaries. There are only 24 hours in a day. Your job should only be a portion of that. Stay in tune with what is net positive to your life and find a way to resist everything else with compassion. Or just say no.
“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”