How To Say No Gracefully

April 6, 2016

by Ravi Raman

how to say no

Are you a “yes” person or a “no” person?

A “yes” person will say “yes” to any request. The motivation might be to avoid disapproval, missing out on an opportunity or looking bad.

A “no” person will say “no” to any request as a default response. The motivation might be to avoid being taken advantage of, protect free time and otherwise avoid looking like a support member of a cast instead of a leader.

Chances are you are some mix of the two, with a bias towards one or the other.

Regardless where you fit on the spectrum of yes vs. no, there are times when saying no is absolutely the right thing to do. It is the things you choose not to do, that create space and time for you to pursue the things you really need and want to do.

This reminds me of the famous quote by Steve Jobs:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

If you work in an environment where you are not the head honcho (remember that even CEOs need to answer to their boards) your ability to say no with grace will be the key factor in maintaining any semblance of work/life balance (or “harmony” in the words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella).

Saying no will also create a fertile ground for you spend time creating truly outstanding things, by saying yes to experiences and projects that have a real meaning and impact.

Where do you fit on the Yes/No spectrum?

Saying yes comes natural to some people, and it results of constant oversubscription to work and other people’s demands. Saying no is the default for others, and this yields countless missed opportunities to have new experiences, learning, and contributions.

Where do you fit on the spectrum?

Consider your default mode of response at work right now, and also your default mode of reaction for your life overall.

If you are naturally more of a “yes” person, you will benefit from learning to apply the techniques in the rest of this article.

If you are naturally more of a “no” person already, well, you might benefit from trying to say yes more often. After all, if you always say “no” to things, opportunities will pass you by. I will cover the topic of saying “yes” to the right things in another blog post!

What saying no really means

When you say no, you are saying yes to something else.

Saying no is a way of opening doors. Even if you don’t have anything else to do, by refusing to do one thing, you free up time to spend on something else, something that may be much more worthwhile. Even if nothing else presents itself, you will have some extra free time to spend as you choose. In a culture of rampant overwork, free time is a good problem to have.

Most busy professionals feel uncomfortable with free time on their hands. Learn to get used to having downtime! Many breakthroughs have happened as a direct result of daydreaming, dreaming and letting the brain relax. The same might be true for you.

Consider how much time and energy will be saved by learning to say no to even one useless project or request that gets tossed your way every month. It’s a fair guess that honing this skill could easily save you several hours per week, probably more.

This emphasizes the importance of learning to say no.

How to negotiate requests

Saying no is a response to a request, and responding to a request is a negotiation.

We’re not talking “The Art of the Deal” style negotiation. We’re talking about something much more practical that you can apply in your daily life.

It doesn’t matter if it is your CEO asking you to build a new feature for your product, or your kid is wanting to stay at the playground longer than you would like. Negotiations are not simple yes or no situations. In fact, there are least four immediate responses to any request that heads your way:

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Clarify
  4. Counter-offer

Clarify requests first

The first two responses are obvious but what about the third item, “clarify”? Let’s suppose your boss asks you to take on a new project, but you are already slammed with work and not sure that the request is worthy. Instead of saying yes or no, focus on clarifying the request with questions.

My favorite way of clarifying is to ask the requestor:

“Would you tell me more about that…?”.

Based on the response, I would then respond with yes/no or continue with additional questions:

“Mind if I ask a few questions to understand what you need?”

Then ask….

“How will this be used?”
“When is the deadline?”
“Am I the best person to do this?”
“Does this need to happen immediately or can it be done later?”
“What’s the goal of this?”

A few questions can do wonders. Have you ever noticed that many requests are made without a clear idea of why the work is needed or how it needs to be done?

Questions not only help the requestee, but they also help the requestor be clear for themselves on what they really need! Using this technique, I’ve had many requestors realize that: the thing I was being asked to do wasn’t needed at all, there was an easier way to accomplish the goal, or someone else was better suited to do the work.

Learn to make counter-offers

Let’s ponder the example of a child requesting to stay outside and play longer, even though it is dinner time. You might try to just tell her no with a firm and stern voice. This might work for some kids, but for many, it will only embolden their resolve.

Another tactic is to make a counter-offer. Examples might be:

  1. Mention that she can return to playing after dinner.
  2. Mention that tomorrow you will take her go to a different and more fun playground, if she comes inside now and gets ready for dinner.
  3. Mention that after dinner, she can watch an episode of their favorite cartoon.

A savvy parent can probably come up with a dozen counter-offers for this scenario!

In a work situation, lots of things are negotiable. For example, if a boss asks you to perform a market analysis in a week, and you deem the project worthy after asking clarifying questions, you might then counter-offer to change the deadline to a later date. You might opt to focus on a specific sector of the market to scope the work in a more manageable way. You might also recommend that the work be split amongst multiple team members, or perhaps that a third-party (vendor or research firm) be hired to do the work.

Lastly, you might just say “yes” with no counter-offers if the request is useful and you are confident in your ability to get it done!

There are unlimited options for counter-offers, and just like real estate transactions (I’m going through the process of getting my home for sale now and this is top of mind) you can continue to make counter-offers until you either agree on the approach or decide to cancel the request.

Saying no gracefully

The tactics above can be performed in a way that leave the requestor thinking you are complete jerk or in a way that leaves her thinking that you really care about her, the team, the company and that you value your time as well.

Saying no gracefully is about empathizing with the other person, and trying your best to understand where the request is coming from (e.g. maybe the requestor is under extreme pressure from their boss and doesn’t know how to say no!), the value of doing the work, and the best way for everyone to get what they want.

You should try using softeners for stressful situations (or where a boss is dictating that you get something done right away), being less adversarial and more like a team player that is trying to do the right thing.

The best softeners acknolwedge the potential value in the request, without commitment. For example, simply state, “I understand how this project might be useful. Mind if I ask a few questions first so I’m clear on what you are asking for?” or “This seems useful, but I cannot do this project right now due to other demands on my time. Does this need to be done now? How else can you get this done?”

When no means “NO”


how to say no


After asking questions, making a counter-offer and assessing all the information you’ve gathered (this can all be done swiftly, in a matter of minutes) there are times when your final answer will need to be a firm “no.”

Make sure that you and the requestor are abundantly clear on the final answer. There is nothing worse than thinking someone is going to do something, only to realize later that they never committed and the work is not complete.

Sometimes, no means no!

Give these strategies a try at work (and at home). With practice, you will find saying no much easier. Notice how when you say no to things, you are able to pay more attention to worthy projects, and establish a much stronger work/life balance.

Saying no is empowering.

If after all this you still you end up having trouble deciding what to say yes or no to, Seth Godin has some advice as does Derek Sivers.


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