Nobody wants to be known as the person who always says no. But for leaders, the pressure to say yes can be especially intense. You may be worried that if you decline, people will stop approaching you with great opportunities. You want to be seen as a team player who’s always up for a new challenge.
But always saying yes can be destructive. Taking on too much can cause you to be stressed and scattered, lower the quality of your work, and ultimately set you up to let people down — which is exactly what you were trying to avoid.
Great leaders like Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs have championed the importance of saying no. As Tony Blair put it, “The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It’s very easy to say yes.”
Being able to decline effectively shows that you have a clear sense of direction and enables your team to stay focused. And it takes practice. Here’s a formula for how you can go about it, along with a few sample phrases to help you get more comfortable with saying no.
1. Start with a “thank you.”
When you get a request that seems uninteresting or annoying, remember that this person is asking you because they believe in your ability to help the project succeed. They may not know what inspires you or what your schedule looks like, but they still think you’re the right person for the job.
To avoid shutting them down too harshly or embarrassing them with a rejection, try to understand why they’ve approached you, and be gracious. Validating their faith in you shows that you’re open to other requests in the future, even if this particular one is not right for you.
- “Thank you for thinking of me!”
- “I’m grateful for the offer.”
- “I really appreciate your confidence in me.”
2. Take a moment for consideration.
You may feel pressured to answer immediately when your boss, client, or colleague approaches you with a request, but buying yourself some time to think can help you avoid a knee-jerk “yes.”
Even when a request is urgent, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for more information and a moment to evaluate whether it can be done.
- “That sounds really interesting. Let me know when you need an answer by and I’ll get back to you.”
- “Normally I’d jump at this opportunity but I want to make sure I can give it the attention it deserves right now. I’ll let you know by [date] if I can make it work.”
- “This project sounds fascinating and I’d love to hear more about it. Would you be available at [suggested times] to discuss what it would entail?”
3. Actually say “no.”
You’ve weighed your options, you’ve taken a realistic look at what’s on your plate, and you know this will require more than you can give at the moment. It may seem obvious, but remember to actually say “no” when you’re turning down a request.
When we’re concerned about offending people, we tend to hedge and use self-deprecation in hopes that they’ll withdraw the offer. Holly Weeks, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of Failure to Communicate, explains: “Too often people start with lightweight reasons and hold back the real reason they’re saying no…. But the little, self-deprecating explanations are not persuasive and are easily batted aside. Or they come across as disingenuous.”
- “I’m disappointed to miss this, but unfortunately I have to say no.”
- “I want this project to succeed, but I’m sorry that I won’t be able to help.”
- “This sounds interesting, but I have to say no. I wish you the best of luck with it.”
4. Give an honest explanation.
How often have you been told “no” followed by a torrent of excuses, each of which sounds less plausible than the last? We tend to feel guilty about saying no and worry that we’ll come across as rude or mean if we don’t explain ourselves.
But rattling off a million different reasons or giving a complete run-down of your calendar won’t make either party feel better. Instead, offer some context in a straightforward way, but don’t feel pressured to over-justify your reasons.
- “I’m grateful for the opportunity but I’ve fully committed myself for the time being.”
- “I’m focusing on [X] right now, and since I can’t give you 100% of my attention, I have to say no.”
- “While I wish I could help, it’s not my area of expertise. I don’t have the bandwidth to learn more about it right now, so I have to decline.”
5. Offer a suggestion, if you can.
If you’re concerned about seeming unhelpful to a boss or a team member, see if you can help them get closer to a solution. Offering a suggestion communicates that you are sincere about wanting to help. (Just make sure you don’t wind up offering to help in some other way if you can’t!)
- “I would love to help but I’m heads-down on another project for the next [period of time]. Can you ask me again when that project wraps up?”
- “Unfortunately I won’t be available to help, but I know someone who is an expert in this area. Can I make an introduction?”
- “I planned to focus on [these tasks] for the next month. Since it sounds like this is time-sensitive, can you suggest how we might adjust my other priorities to make time for it?”
6. Move on.
Part of what makes saying no so hard is that we’re afraid it might change how others see us. We feel bad about leaving them in the lurch and worry that they’ll be angry and disappointed. Maybe they will react this way, but you can’t control someone else’s reaction — you can only control your own.
If you’ve taken a clear-eyed, empathetic look at the request and have decided to say no, say it as best you can, own it, and move forward.
Say this (to yourself):
- “‘No’ is the best response for both me and my team right now. There will be plenty of future opportunities to say ‘yes.’”