Leadership Advice

Three ways to say ‘no’ – shamelessly

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

The pandemic has caused many of us to rethink our time and priorities. People are leaving jobs, learning new skills, moving, asking for re-designed work arrangements, and questioning their previous business travel habits.

As we settle in to “new normal” patterns at work and in our personal lives, we may find ourselves wanting to decline meetings, projects, conferences, or trips that we dutifully agreed to in the past, even when we weren’t crazy about them.

It was hard to say “no” then, and we don’t want to get into the same pattern of automatic acceptance now.

So, how do you say “no” to a request that might not be a valuable use of your time, without alienating people or feeling guilty?

Here are three tips.

  • Be strategic. Think beyond your initial negative reaction and consider the relationship you want to maintain with the person making the request. Is it someone who is trying to provide a growth opportunity for you? Someone who has helped you in the past and deserves reciprocity from you? Instead of “no,” you could opt for “I can’t make it work right now, but here’s when I could do it.” Maintaining positive relationships is important.  If you routinely ask favors of others, you can’t expect things to be a one-way street. (Probably not a concern if your default setting has historically been “yes” and you’re just doing some recalibration.)
  • Be candid — but you don’t need to go into deep detail. If someone wants you to be part of a panel at an in-person event and you’re trying to do less travel, be straightforward: “I appreciate the offer, but I’ve decided to do less travel in the foreseeable future.” You don’t have to explain that your children miss you or your dog would have separation anxiety. We sometimes feel the need to provide a detailed explanation so the other person gives us a pass. You may do that if the requester is a friend, but you don’t need to reveal your personal life to strangers. There is no shame in saying, “I’m not able to accept your kind invitation because I have a schedule conflict” when the conflict isn’t another event on your calendar, it’s your desire to preserve some free time.
  • Offer alternatives. If you don’t want to attend an in-person event, you could offer to appear remotely (but be sure you’re prepared technically and for the performance of participating from a distance.) Offer to find a substitute for yourself, someone you’re confident could deliver and might benefit from the exposure. If you are declining participation in a project but want to be helpful, offer support in a role that is less time-intensive. For example, if someone asks you to read a book manuscript and give them feedback, offer to read a chapter instead. If you’re asked to judge a contest, request a specific category that has fewer or shorter entries. 

Whenever I write a column like this, I worry that people may take the advice beyond what I intend. My goal isn’t to help you become a person who doesn’t support others, or network, or serve as a good team player.  It’s to assist you in finding the work/life harmony that will make you a more effective — and happier — colleague by learning when to say a wholehearted “yes” or a strategic and guilt-free “no.”


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Pamela Pereira
Pamela Pereira
2 years ago

Jill Geisler I always turn to your sage wisdom when I feel that I am stuck in my own head – which has been quite often lately. Thank you for being that go to voice that I have turned to for many, many years to get out of my head and refocus.

Jill Geisler
Jill Geisler
2 years ago
Reply to  Pamela Pereira

Hi Pamela!
Your feedback just made my day. We all get stuck in our own heads from time to time. I know I do! If what we share in these columns is a friendly voice that helps you see options and solutions, I couldn’t be happier! Leaders are continuous learners – and you are proof of that! — Jill Geisler

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2 years ago

Great content! Keep up the good work!