9 Ways to Say “No” with Grace

You’re busy. You have a full agenda and yet you’re part of an organization too. Which means that others are going to ask you to do things and unless you’re comfortable with the social consequences of being the person that everyone knows doesn’t ever help anyone else, you’re going to have to know how to say “no” with a bit of tact and grace.

Here are nine good ways to say no in no particular order. Why not ten? No reason.

The first three should typically be seen as positive by the person you’re declining and should normally leave you with your social capital intact within the organization:

1. I have another commitment. This is non-specific, good for anything and only has to be explained (if at all) to the degree that you think the situation requires. It implies nothing about the requester if it is understood that his or her request is as important as your existing one.

2. I have another project. This is good because again it says nothing personal about either you or the requester – relationship is left out of the equation and only the relatively impersonal time factor enters into the discussion. It is more definitive than the first.

3. I have no room on my calendar. You’d better be sure with this one if they can check your calendar.

The next two move the conversation away from you and into the area of facilitation, which is usually perceived as positive help by the requester. They can be used alone or as follow-up items to the above.

4. Offer a creative alternative. You can’t really help the person, but perhaps you can come up with a way that will help them without involving you or your time. By taking the time to come up with an alternative you show that you care enough to invest a little time in the problem-solving, thereby again retaining your social capital within the organization.

5. I can’t but I can hook you up with someone who can. This is a variant of number three above.

This next one is true for all requests.

6. I’m sorry, I can’t Joe, or Beth or whoever. The point is to always personalize the refusal as much as possible. This helps softens the refusal (which always runs the risk of being perceived as a personal rejection).

The final three are more negative in tone in that they focus somewhat more on your inabilities rather than something more impersonal.

7. I’m not taking on any new responsibilities. Only good when you have the organizational position to say it with grace and not appear to be putting yourself above the requester in the social setting.

8. I have no experience with that. When true there should be no social consequences in a typical situation. Unless it can be made readily apparent that the request really should be out of your field the too-frequent use of this one risks building a reputation for incompetence.

9. I’m not comfortable with that. Use with care. It can imply negative things about the request or the requester. The focus must be on you and why you’re not comfortable with it. It is also more useful in a good business relationship where the other person cares about you to some degree.

In using any of these remember to ask yourself a couple of crucial questions. Is the request reasonable? Is the request being made from a cognitive or emotional standpoint (you always have to address an emotion before you can deal with the cognitive content)? And finally, what are the risks? If it’s your CEO who’s doing the asking then many of the above may not apply.

Seriously, your mileage may vary, but each of these done with concern for the individual, personal grace and a bit of tact should allow you to say no without alienating you within your organization. If you have other personal favorites please feel free to add them to the list.

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