by Bobbi Kahler

I used to be one of those people who could never say “no” to anyone. Then one day it occurred to me that I was making choices. Every time I said “yes” out of obligation, I was saying “no” to something else; and, often, what I was saying “no” to was more important than those things that I was saying yes to. From that point on, before I said “yes” to anyone or any project, I asked myself the following question: “By saying yes to this, will that force me to say “no” to something else?” If the answer to that question was yes, then I had to evaluate it’s importance.

Here’s where, I believe, things get tricky. I think that many people go through life without ever deciding what they want to say yes to. Without knowing what we want to say “yes” to, it’s almost impossible to know what to say “no” to. Here are a few questions to get you thinking about what you want to say “yes” to:

1. What’s most important to you in regard to your family?
2. What’s most important to you in regard to your health?
3. What’s most important to you in regard to your closest relationships?
4. What’s most important to you in regard to your career or business?

Write those things down. Before saying “yes” to anyone or any project, evaluate whether or not it moves you closer to those things. If it moves you farther away, politely decline.

It’s one thing to know that we need to say no; it’s another to feel comfortable doing it. Here are 10 things that you can do to feel more at ease in saying no.

1. Keep in mind that when you are saying “no” you are simply saying “yes” to those things that you have decided are a priority.

2. Remember that a request is just that – a request. And, if the person making the request is being open and honest, then it is entirely reasonable to decline the request.

3. Since it is a request, you have every right to counter-offer. Here are a couple of ways to counter-offer: a. “I’d love to help out with that project; unfortunately, that deadline won’t work with my schedule. Is the deadline flexible?” b. “I’d love to be part of that project; however, I’m not comfortable with the role that you are proposing for me. Could we discuss other ways that I might contribute?”

4.Instead of simply saying “no,” is it possible to offer an alternative solution? For example, I allow myself two days a month where I will donate my time and do pro bono speaking events. It’s not reasonable for me to do more than that (and maintain the rest of my schedule). Accordingly, if someone contacts me and wants me to speak at their monthly meeting for free and I’m already committed to my two dates that month, I simply say “Unfortunately, that month doesn’t work for me. Can we look at an alternative month?” In every case the answer has been yes.

5. Soften the “no.” Instead of just saying “no” and leaving it at that, soften it. For example, “I’d love to come to your dinner party this weekend, however, I have really over committed this week, and, so regretfully, I must say no.” You can also try something like this: “Your dinner party sounds like a lot of fun; unfortunately, we can’t make it this time. I hope you’ll invite us in the future.”

6. Set boundaries up front and manage back to them. When I moved from Missouri back to Illinois, my sister, Nanette, over lunch one day said to me: “There may be times when you invite me to come over to dinner or whatever; there will be times when I will say yes and there will be times when I need to say no. Just know that if I say no, it doesn’t mean it’s that I don’t love you; it just means that it doesn’t work for me at the time.” She and I both committed to that boundary and it worked beautifully. I have used this same tactic with others and, at times, have had to remind them of it.

7. Understand that if you say “no” and the other person gets angry, it likely has very little to do with the request. There is something else going on and you might want to probe to discover what that is (if it’s important to you). Try this: “I can see that this is clearly important to you. It seems that this goes a bit deeper than my saying no. Our relationship is important to me so I’d like to resolve this. Can we discuss it?”

8. Get all the information before committing. Don’t say yes to anything until you fully understand what you are getting into. If you think it’s something you are interested in say something like, “That sounds like something I’d like to be part of. However, before I make a decision, I’ll need to know more about it.” Things to learn (some of these apply more to business projects but are still good brainstorming examples):

a. What – exactly – needs to be done?
b. What is the deadline?
c. How much time will it take?
d. Will there be meetings? If so, are those in person or by phone?
e. Who will I be working with?
f. What results are we working towards?
g. How will my performance be evaluated?

9. Know your priorities and be true to them. The reason that this helps us to say no gracefully is because then we are simply honoring a commitment that we have made to ourselves. If we don’t know our own priorities and we are constantly being swept along by others we become resentful and that gets in the way of saying no with grace. Ask yourself this question: “How does this opportunity contribute to my priorities?”

10. Be honest and don’t make excuses. One of the hardest things for me to learn was when I was the regional director for an organization. The organization had hundreds of members and in any given week, I had – literally – dozens of requests to meet for coffee. At first, I tried to meet with everyone. Then, because that was consuming so much time, I started feeling resentful. That’s when it occurred to me that I had to find a way to say no that was straightforward, truthful and didn’t contain excuses. What I came up with was this: “I would love to be able to meet for coffee; however, because of my position with the organization, I am swamped with invitations and it would be impossible for me to accept them and still be responsible to my own business.” Most people understood.

Bobbi’s life work is helping others flourish. She has a background in management and training and development; helping people develop themselves. By helping people fully develop themselves they become better team members, better employees and more effective with their customers; which means bottom-line results for the company in terms of increased employee retention, increased customer retention and increased sales. She is a contributing author to Conversations on Customer Service and Sales, and to the best-selling book, Masters of Success. You can reach her at 773.539.3639 or

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