Of all the things I learned in my first five years as an entrepreneur, learning to say “no” gracefully just might top the list.
So does balance.
While the need to say “no” isn’t unique to entrepreneurs, its importance is amplified when so much of the work to be done falls upon one set of shoulders. And yet nearly everyone I know struggles to get this little word out when the time comes to say it.
When it comes to saying no, I find the simpler the better. Complicating your “no” with a lengthy explanation or softening it with a “maybe” just makes it harder for the person receiving it to get the message.
1. Open with gratitude.
Find something to thank the person for 0 you won’t have to dig too deeply. A simple “Thanks so much for your note – it was great to hear from you” works every time.
2. Acknowledge the request.
People need to know they’ve been heard. Play back the request in your own words so they know their message has landed. You might say “It sounds like you have quite an event planned and think I could add value to it.”
3. Give your “no.”
This is the hardest part, so take a deep breath and get ready to be clear. Avoid words like “maybe” and “someday.” Just get the sentence out. If you’re really stuck, try one of these.
- “I’m afraid I have to say no.”
- “Regrettably, I need to decline.”
- “Unfortunately, I’m not able to commit to this.”
- “While it’s always hard to say, especially to someone I respect as much as you, my answer is no.”
4. Tell them why (if you choose).
You don’t have to explain why, but a brief explanation that is truthful can sometimes help to take the sting out of the no. Warning: This does open the door to the person then trying to “handle” your objection which can keep the dialog going longer than necessary, so be careful with this if you don’t actually want to keep that door open.
5. Close with grace.
Offer something from your reservoir of grace and kindness. Acknowledge the person making the request in a way that makes it clear your refusal is not personal. Suggest someone else who could do the work. Provide a resource you think would be helpful. Wish them well. Be warm and authentic.
Saying no may never be your favorite response, but I’ve personally found great motivation in the idea that every “no” I manage to get out creates space for a wholehearted “yes” to something I truly want or need to do.
This post first appeared on Best Kept Self, where I am a featured contributor.