How to Say No

6 min read

saying no

There are a lot of great blog posts and books out there about how we should all say ‘No’ to more things in order to focus more on what really matters.

This seems pretty obvious to most people. But why is it so difficult to actually do?

I think it’s because most people don’t actually know how to say ‘No.’ They don’t have the words or the script, and so they fall back to saying ‘Yes’ because it’s socially polite or because they feel some responsibility. Saying ‘Yes’ is easier than saying ‘No.’

So here’s a handy cheat sheet on how to say ‘No.’ Bookmark this page and come back to it when you need it.

(Most of these I’ve collected over the years from places like Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and a few of them are my own.)

1. Ignore the Request or Lie

I don’t really like these options — I try to respond to every email I get, and I think a good personal virtue is to tell the truth in most situations, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Are you coming to my birthday party next Saturday?

But if you’re very busy or don’t have time to craft a thoughtful response to a request, you can ignore the request or lie about being busy:

Thanks for the invitation! I’d love to come but I can’t, I’ve already committed to something this weekend.

If you’re going to lie, be vague. Even though specific excuses are more believable, they’re also more likely to be called out, and you may find yourself having to remember things that you lied about.

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” — Mark Twain

2. Don’t Respond Right Away

The first important advice I’d give to someone who has trouble saying ‘No,’ is to not commit to things immediately.

Are you free to grab dinner next week?

When someone asks you to do something, especially if there’s some sort of time or social pressure involved, avoid saying ‘Yes’ (or implying it) right away.

I don’t know what my schedule looks like yet. Can I get back to you later this week?

This is more of a delaying tactic, but if you have a hard time finding the words to say ‘No’ while on the spot, delaying can be a really helpful way for you to remove yourself from the situation so that you can deliver a more thoughtful ‘No’ later.

Just make sure to actually get back to the person later— you don’t want to be known as the person who never follows up.

3. Defer to Some Time in the Future

If you’re really busy, but you’re being asked for something you wouldn’t mind doing at some point, you can suggest a later time in the near or distant future.

I’m really busy working on a product launch this week. But I’d love to get together once it’s finished. Do you mind reaching out again in a few weeks?

4. Propose a Low Commitment Alternative

Because I make my email very public, I get lots of emails from people asking if they can take me out to lunch or coffee to “pick my brain.”

I was wondering if my cofounder and I could take you to dinner/lunch, we’d love to tell you what we’re working on and pick your brain.

Because “brain picking” meetings can be exhausting and unstructured, I usually propose an alternative:

Sorry — I can’t meet up in-person — but I’m happy to help. So email me any question anytime. I’m not good with big general, “Here’s my entire situation — what do you think of it?” kind of questions, but pretty good with specific questions.

In this case, I’m offering to answer their questions asynchronously over email rather than in person or over the phone. I’m also requiring that they be specific with the questions they’d like me to answer (which is a reasonable request), because vague questions can be harder and take much longer to answer.

5. Propose a No Commitment Alternative

There are a few good ways to respond that don’t require you to commit to anything personally.

Sometimes I get emails from several people asking me the same question. For example, since I’m an alumni, people often reach out asking me to review their Y Combinator application:

If you have time for a quick chat, we’d love to hear about y’alls experience at YC, and if there are any pointers or advice in general you feel would be important for the interview or for a startup that is at the beginning of the YC process.

What I usually do here is politely decline and send a blog post or other resources that might be helpful:

I really appreciate you reaching out and asking for a review. That means you put a lot of trust and faith in me, and that means a lot. But I’m getting a lot of requests like this at the moment, and I have to say no unless I already have a strong pre-existing relationship with someone. It’s just too much to commit to helping out each person I’d like to help out.

I’m sure you’ve run across my two posts about your question before, but in case you haven’t, you might want to check out: how to get into Y Combinator and what I got out of Y Combinator.

I also keep a few pre-written ‘Reading Lists’ in Evernote that I send people directly over email (here’s a link to my Coding Reading List).

Sometimes it can make sense to suggest someone else who may be able to help — like if you’re being invited to give a talk somewhere but you can’t make it.

Don’t forget that just because you can’t do or aren’t interested in whatever you’re being asked to do, doesn’t mean the request wouldn’t be interesting or useful for someone else. (Just make sure you ask first before forwarding the request along.)

6. Respond with Your Own Request

Though I’ve never tried this myself, back in 2013 my friend Mathias used to get a lot of requests for Skype calls, so he created a Google form that he would ask people to fill out before he would agree to a meeting.

In order to help me decide when to do Skype calls or when to meet up in person, I’ve created a Google form with some basic questions that I will ask you to fill out: [link to Google form]

His form consisted of questions like:

  • What would you like to discuss / talk about?
  • What’s the purpose of the session?
  • What would be the ideal outcome of a potential session?
  • What do you believe that I can bring into the conversation?

I think this is especially clever since it allows you to still help out those who really need it, but also conveys the point that you’re going to be doing work for someone, so they should be thoughtful about it and not take your time for granted.

I reached out to Mathias recently and he mentioned that these days he directs people to his preferred channels —Whatsapp, iMessage, Twitter DM – instead.

There’s a similar tactic that you can use when an authority figure makes a request that you can’t really say ‘No’ to:

Sure, I’d be happy to do that. Which of these other things would you like me to deprioritize?

In this way, you’re basically saying ‘I can’t possibly do this and all the other things you’ve asked me to do’ and putting the onus on the other person to decide what you shouldn’t do.

7. Deliver a Thoughtful Rejection

When you just flat-out have to say ‘No’ to someone, you will want to come up with a tactful way to do it.

I once got an email from a friend of a friend asking me make an introduction to someone I knew.

It looks like you’re connected to X on LinkedIn, would you mind making an introduction and endorsing my startup?

Here’s one I sometimes use when someone I don’t know reaches out to ask me for an introduction to someone I know:

I really appreciate you reaching out and asking for an introduction and endorsement. That means you put a lot of trust and faith in me, and that means a lot. In this case, I don’t feel comfortable making an introduction for a few reasons:

– I don’t know you. You seem like a great person and we have a few friends in common, but I prefer to have met someone at least once before publicly endorsing them and the things they’re working on.
– I also don’t know anything about the quality of the product itself.
– Finally, I’m not very well-informed about the space your startup works in. That makes it especially hard for me to assess the value here, but also makes my opinions much less valuable.

The key elements to a thoughtful rejection are: Thank them for their request and show appreciation. Do it sincerely. Talk about how you feel rather than how things are. Someone is much less likely to be offended if you say “I don’t feel comfortable doing this,” rather than, “I won’t do this.” Keep the tone light and direct. Don’t play games or be vague. If you want, offer them some alternatives such as those in #4 and #5.

Bottom line, here are some general guidelines to follow that will make it easier to say “No”:

  • Separate the decision from the relationship. Sometimes you want to say yes because of the person, but make an effort to separate the two. If it’s not something you would normally say yes to, don’t do it just because someone special is asking.
  • Saying “No” gracefully doesn’t have to mean using the word “No.”
  • Focus on the trade-off. Saying ‘Yes’ to one thing often means you’re implicitly saying ‘No’ to other things you may want or need to do.
  • Remind yourself that everyone is selling something.
  • Come to terms with the fact that saying “No” will make you less popular in the short-run.
  • People will respect you more because they will see that you value your time. 
  • Remember that a clear “No” can be better and less painful for the other person than a vague or noncommittal “Yes.”

Can you think of any other ways to say no that I forgot to mention? Or do you have any other templates that other people could use? Post them in the comments. Then take a second to share this with one person who you think should say ‘No’ more often and make their life better!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *