How to say no politely: the perfectly pitched Yes, No, Yes

How many times have you opened an email or read a text message, only to think, “Too hard, I’ll deal with that later”? I don’t know how to say no.” Jodi Geddes used to be in awe of those people who know how to politely decline an invitation and not hurt your feelings. Now she is one of them.

Everyone knows one of those people. The ones who respond in a timely manner and manage to diplomatically say no. The ones who can put themselves first without managing to ruin a relationship. The ones you end up respecting more, with a feeling of, “Why can’t I be like that?” Tired of being a ‘yes-person’, I went on a mission to learn how to say no politely.

Several years ago (back when we blissfully took international travel for granted), I headed to Bali for a much-needed family holiday. I was burned out, had left my corporate job, and was focused on starting Circle In. But I wasn’t lying by the pool with a mojito and the latest NYTimes best seller — no! While my kids were napping (and sometimes when they weren’t), I was working on our business.

Through LinkedIn, I realized my time in Bali crossed over with a contact I was desperate to meet with. Via email, we arranged to meet and I got busy preparing a list of questions. I was ready for a 30-minute poolside mocktail and non-interrogation interrogation.

That was until the week of the planned meet-up when I received the dreaded, “Thanks, but no thanks — I don’t have time.”

At first, the disappointment was so sharp I wanted to cry. This was a contact I needed to reassure me our business model was sound and that working caregivers needed what we had to share. The rejection made me question what I had to offer.

Then I read the email again, “Hi lovely, how are you enjoying Bali? Would you believe I’m not going to get the chance to see you? I’ve been traveling a lot and I’m tackling the parent guilt big time. So, I’m sorry to say, it’s not going to happen. How are things with you?”

What struck me then was the confidence in the no. The perfectly pitched Yes, No, Yes. She had managed to do what I always wanted to be able to do — respond immediately, be polite, be personal, be confident, and put myself first.

I have no idea what was going on for her (and I don’t need to know) but I totally get the parent guilt thing. Regardless, she put herself first and was not afraid to let me know. 

I learned a lot from that email. We talk about the power of Yes, No, Yes a lot at Circle In, and this is a perfect example of how to do it. So here are my takeaways:

Don’t be afraid. Say no with confidence, especially if you really don’t want to do something or don’t have time.

Respond in a timely manner. The longer you put it off, the harder it will be to say no.

Prioritize. Important people in your life get priority over strangers or acquaintances asking you for a coffee or a favor.

Be authentic. Avoid telling white lies. No one can say yes to everything all of the time. Lying only leads to (more) guilt.

Practice the Yes, No, Yes philosophy. In other words, connect first on a positive note, then politely decline, then end on a positive and possibly an open-ended question (like my contact did above — “How are things with you?”).

If you need some polite ways to decline, here are some great examples:

  • I’m really sorry I can’t help you, but I would love to recommend someone else.
  • I wish I could help you, but it’s just not possible right now. Thank you for thinking of me.
  • I’m really sorry, but I have promised myself that I would say ‘no’ when I really can’t meet your expectations/deliver.
  • I promised myself that I would commit my time to [insert project]. That’s what’s important to me right now and I need to stay focused.
  • Thank you, however, I have just committed to three other priorities and this is not something I will be able to fit in. I can help connect you with some of my contacts if you like?

Learning to say no politely and with confidence has been one of the best things I have done for myself. Although challenging at first, it has freed me from feeling any unnecessary guilt, resentment, and stress.

We should all put ourselves first by saying no more. Give it a go, and I promise that you’ll surprise yourself, and probably feel pretty damn good, too.

Written by Jodi Geddes, co-founder of Circle In.

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