The Art of Saying NO Gracefully

How many times have you found yourself saying YES when you’d rather yell NO? 

I had a coach tell me, “if it isn’t a hell yes, then it’s a solid no.” 

And, I come back to this mantra often as I juggle social commitments, civic engagements, my personal life, and my family life. 

The truth is that saying no strategically can help you get MORE done. 

Morten T. Hansen, a professor at UCLA Berkley, studied thousands of employees at top companies and tried to determine the traits of top performers.  

What do all top performers have in common? They have “mastered selectivity.”  The art of saying no. 

In the short run, it may seem easier to just say yes. But, saying no is essential to living a joyful life.  Every time you say YES to something, it requires that you say NO to something else. Saying “yes” to happy hour with your colleagues requires that you say “no” to dinner with your family. Saying “yes” to drinks + dancing with friends means saying “no” to your early morning run. You need to think about the REAL impact of every “yes” before you habitually utter it.

Saying no allows you to open up space in your calendar for what REALLY matters to you.

If you are squeamish about saying no, here are some tactful ways to do so in a variety of situations: 

Scenario: You get invited to a birthday party/ bridal shower/ bachelorette party/ baby shower of a dear friend.  You love her to pieces, but are dreading going because you won’t know anyone at the party. 

JUST SAY NO: Politely decline + send a gift or flowers. 

Alternatives: “I’m sad that I am missing your party, but I’d love to celebrate just the two of us.  Are you available for drinks + dinner on Thursday?  My treat 😊”

Can I come early and help you set up for the party?  I’d love to spend time with you, but don’t really know your friends.  This way, I can maybe meet a couple folks in a smaller group and stick around if I feel comfortable.  Otherwise, I might just say an Irish goodbye 😉

Scenario: You get invited to coffee by someone in your extended network.  You really don’t have time to go, but don’t want to miss out on a business opportunity. 

JUST SAY NO: Politely decline.  If it was a business opportunity, she would have stated it in her email. 

Alternatives: “I don’t have time to meet you for coffee, but could squeeze in a virtual coffee via phone or Zoom on Thursday at 8am.  Does that work for you?” 

“My schedule is really packed right now!  Can you give me an idea of what you’re hoping to get out of our coffee?”  

Scenario: Your colleague comes into your office while you are knee deep in an important project to discuss <vent> about your boss.

JUST SAY NO: Put your hand up in the universal stop sign. “Hey, I’m really focused on an important project and don’t have time for this right now. Can you pull the door on your way out?”

Alternatives: I really want to give your story my full attention, but I’m totally distracted by this upcoming deadline. Can we grab coffee around 3pm so I can get the full download?

Hey, I’m really focused on an important project right now. I really want to hear your story though. Can I pop by on my next break?

Scenario: Your boss wants you to go to a conference that you think is low value. 

JUST SAY NO: Probably isn’t an option unless you have a damn good reason. 

Alternatives: “Thank you so much for this generous opportunity!  I’ve looked at the agenda <or attendees, or panelists> and think my time would be better spent doing Y <going to this other conference, working on this high value project, creating a webinar for potential clients>.  What are you hoping that I get out of this conference? 

“My schedule is pretty jammed right now.  If this conference is important for me to attend, I really want to go.  What can we take off my plate so I can attend?”

“This conference looks really interesting.  Is there a particular panel you’d like me to attend or person you’d like me to meet?  I want to make sure that I maximize my attendance.” 

Scenario: You get asked to serve on a committee or board on which you either don’t have the time or inclination to serve. 

JUST SAY NO: Thank you for thinking of me, but my schedule doesn’t allow it.  Best of luck finding the right person for this role! 

Alternatives: This is such a worthy cause!  While I don’t have time to serve on the board, I’d be happy to make a donation to the Annual Campaign. 

I’m honored you thought of me!  While I don’t have time to be on the committee, I’d be glad to volunteer at your upcoming event, if you need me. 

Thank you for thinking of me!  My schedule won’t allow me to participate right now, but please keep me in mind for the future.  I’d love to get more involved with your organization next year when I roll of this other board I’m currently serving on. 

Scenario: Your child gets asked to a 6th birthday party by a child unknown to you in his/ her class. 

JUST SAY NO: Politely decline.  Don’t think twice. 

Alternatives: “Is this a drop-off party?  My child would love to celebrate Grace’s birthday, but I have a competing commitment.” 

“Thank you for the kind invitation.  We are unable to make it to Lyla’s party, but would love to have her over for a play date next Saturday at 2pm to celebrate.  I’ll even buy some cupcakes.  Is she free?” 

Scenario: You get asked to chaperone your child’s field trip. 

JUST SAY NO: I wish I could, but my schedule doesn’t allow it.  Best of luck finding a tribute <I mean, volunteer>. 

Alternative: While I can’t chaperone the fifth grade overnight to Blue Ridge, I’d love to get to know the class better.  Do you have any opportunities for parents to volunteer in the classroom? 

Remember, anything or anyone who doesn’t light you up is to small for you,

Sarah-Nell Walsh

Business Coach + Growth Strategist