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The fine art of saying, “No”

I hate camping. I know I’m supposed to love it, but I don’t. Despite that, I used to go on camping trips somewhat frequently. The last one was two years ago with my ex-girlfriend and a few of our friends.

By the time we got to the campsite it was dark out, so we didn’t notice that we were pitching our tent over a giant pointy rock that ended up right below my “mattress.” The next morning I was so grouchy that I snapped at my friends and spent most of the four hour hike lagging behind everyone and grumbling to myself.

Going into that trip, I knew I didn’t want to do it. Yet, I wanted to make my friends and girlfriend happy, so instead of politely declining the offer and staying aligned with myself, I said, “Yeah, sounds great, I’m in.”

And that was a mistake. I didn’t do anyone a favor by going on that trip. I should have said, “No” but I didn’t want to disappoint my friends.

In one of my live programs, “The Leadership Accelerator” audience members are sent a survey ahead of time asking what leadership skills they want to learn during the event. Across the country, the single most requested topic has been learning to say “No.”

That surprised me at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. People on the road to becoming successful are taught to say, “Yes” to as many opportunities as possible so they can gain experience and exposure.

On top of that, many of us suffer from the Fear Of Missing Out so we say, “Yes” just in case something awesome happens.

We need tools. Tools to figure out if we really want to commit, and if not, how to smoothly, but assertively decline an offer without burning bridges or upsetting people who matter.

A simple framework for decision-making:

When you’re faced with a decision, ask yourself these two questions.

1) Do I really want to do this or am I just afraid of saying, “No”? In other words think about:

  • Is this something I actually care about?
  • Does it make sense for me to provide help/support in this way?
  • Do I genuinely like the people involved?
  • Does this align with me and my values?

2) Do I actually have the time for this? Too often great opportunities arise at the wrong time. Saying, “Yes” to something that you don’t have the time for is a good way to set yourself up for failure and frustration.

If the answer to both, “Do I really want to do this?” and “Do I have the time?” is, “Yes”, then terrific! Go ahead and say, “Yes.”

If the answer to either one of those questions, or both, is “No” then politely decline the offer. Here are four ways to smoothly, politely, and firmly say no.

Four phrases to burn into your memory

1) “I adore you and wish I could, but no, I can’t. I’m sorry.” – this is my favorite and most relied on way of saying “No” to people. A lot of times we are afraid to say, “No” because we fear it will be miscommunicated as, “I don’t like you.” This phrase solves that problem while still offering a definitive, “Nope, can’t do it right now.”

2) “No, I can’t do this because…” – numerous psychological studies have shown that the word “because” has a certain magic to it. When you add “because” to a sentence it makes your points more persuasive and compelling. By explaining why you’re declining an offer, people will be more comfortable accepting your, “No.”

3) “I can’t commit to this right now, but let me help you find someone who can” – use this phrase when you care about the person or the cause, but can’t say, “Yes” right now. After declining their offer, send a quick email to two or three people who may be a better match and move on. Don’t get caught up in trying to solve your friend’s problem by finding the perfect person. Instead, put in a bit of effort, and then drop it.

4) “Let me think about that and get back to you” – some people, myself among them, need time to think things through and figure out how they feel about an opportunity. This phrase buys you time and if you are going to decline, allows you to compose your words first.

“Yes” can be a betrayal

We often say, “Yes” when we should say, “No” because we are afraid of disappointing the other person. The problem with saying, “Yes” for the sole purpose of pleasing someone else is that you are betraying yourself.


If the person is worth pleasing then they wont actually want you to betray yourself. If the person is so wrapped up in himself that they are indifferent to whether or not you betray yourself, then they aren’t worth pleasing.

Either way, the right thing to do is be honest about where you’re at and only say, “Yes” when it’s a true reflection of your desire and availability.

The magic of, “No”

Getting good at saying, “No” is an act of self-love and self-compassion. To decline the opportunities that you can’t fulfill, or don’t want to deal with demonstrates that you value yourself and your time.

Saying, “No” when your heart wont be in it is also extremely responsible to the people who you care about.

When you say, “Yes” to an opportunity that you should have said, “No” to, you are never fully present with the person or project you’re working with. There will always be a voice in the back of your head berating you because you weren’t true to yourself.

That voice will infect your relationships and your work. Even if other people can’t articulate what it is, they will sense that you quietly resent them.

Looking back, the responsible thing for me to have done was to say, “Thanks for the invite, but I don’t like camping, so I’m out.” Had I been smart enough to stay home, I wouldn’t have snapped at my friends and resented how I spent the weekend.

Saying “No” creates space in your life for the right opportunities to appear. When you get good at saying, “No” to the stuff that you’re not enthusiastic about, you’ll have plenty of time and energy left over to leap at – and create – the opportunities and experiences that you’re wild about.

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