How to Say No, Graciously

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It’s a fact: we all hate to say no to people. I believe 95% of us out there are people pleasers. We don’t want to hurt feelings or disappoint. So how then do we politely say no to the endless school volunteer opportunities, to the world traveler neighbor who keeps asking you to pick up her mail (when she could just have it stopped!), to the requests for monetary donations that would leave you broke if you gave to all of them? Today I’m sharing my go-to phrases for graciously saying no.

For most of my teenage and adult life, I thought it cool, attractive, and necessary to overload my  schedule and plate. I am sure many of you can relate. But I like to study people and I tend to notice that the women whom I admire most are not the ones who say yes to every single volunteer opportunity and social function, nor the ones who are constantly bogged down by the stress of their over-commitment.

Instead, I find myself looking up to the women who choose wisely for themselves how they spend their time. The women who are confident and have no qualms about saying no in the face of (very real!) adult peer pressure, to friends and even to family. What I have learned is that being gracious and lovely does not mean you have to say yes to everything; it’s about knowing how and when to say no politely

Here are some easy concepts and phrases that help me to say no when needed:

1. A succinct, honest response is better than no response at all. 

I think some people just don’t know how to decline, so the ignorance or avoidance tactic is their best bet. But radio silence is not a gracious way to interact with people. Personally, I would much rather have someone turn me down outright than to ignore my email or phone calls. I think most people feel the same way. (Confession: I have been guilty of the avoidance tactic; it didn’t make me feel good and it hung over my head for months!).

For example, just this week someone texted me to ask if I could take on more responsibility in an upcoming volunteer commitment. In the past, I probably would have begrudgingly agreed, but then would have been miserable the entire time, and that’s not fair to anyone, especially when someone else can easily take on the responsibility (and had more joy doing it!

So I responded no with a short explanation. This fellow mom didn’t need 10 excuses why I couldn’t do it. She just needed a quick yes or no answer so she could keep moving down her list of potential candidates. And do you know what? She was not in the least bit offended that I said no.

Bottom line: Most people respect it when you are timely,  honest, and polite when saying no.

2. I know you will understand…

I have written about this before, but saying “I know you will understand” before laying out your reason takes the pressure off you and forces them to consider your circumstances.

Examples:

“I know you will understand, but we are tying to save to buy for a house so we can’t go on that couples’ trip to the wine country.”

“I know you will understand this, but my daughter really wants to pick out something extra special for her teacher, so we aren’t going to go in on the group teacher gift this year.”

“I know you will understand, but we are wiped out after the funeral and are not up for having visitors right now.”

No one is going to give a rebuttal to a sentence that starts with this empathy-drawing phrase. They usually nod and say, “Oh, yes, I completely understand!”

3. Blame it on your children or husband (or another loved one!). 

When I was in high school, my mother told me that if I didn’t feel comfortable when asked to go somewhere or do something, to blame her as to why I couldn’t participate. (It really did come in handy several times!) So I use the same tactic today.

Examples:

“I can’t chair that fundraiser this year, I found myself too overextended this past year and it made me really cranky and stressed around my family. I think need to spend more time focused on them this year.”

“My husband has been working so much lately, we would love to go to dinner, but we really need to use our babysitter budget to spend some quality time together this month!”

Recap: No one (hopefully!) is going to argue with putting your family first!

4. To the person that never stops asking for favors: suggest some alternative resources. 

My friend has a neighbor that always asks to get her mail. Now, this is a totally normal and acceptable thing to ask a neighbor if one is goes out of town a few times a year. But I think it too much to ask if one travel several times a month. (Lesson: Just because people say yes to your favor, doesn’t mean they really want to!)

So what’s my friend to do?  Well, my husband is always really good about using humor to point out things. If you can use humor in that way, I think it totally takes any tension out of the air and is a great way to (maybe) get someone to think twice about what they are asking. I am not as good about that so I just try to be super nice when suggesting other options.

Examples:

“Sure, I’ll be happy to get your mail, but, just so you know, this summer we will be out of town a few weeks so if you’re gone, too, I can show you how to go online and “hold” your mail. It’s super easy; I do it all the time!”. 

“I am SO sorry I can’t keep your two year old while you go to the spa, but I have a great sitter who has come last minute for me before. I’ll text you her number right now.”

5. Request time to think about it. 

I once heard a speaker say that when her children asked her difficult/awkward questions she would give her self some time  to come up with an answer by responding with something like: “That is a GREAT question! Let me think on that and we’ll talk about it later tonight.” (It was Mary Flo Ridley for those who know her and I am sure I misquoting her!).

This phrase has stuck with me when dealing with my children, but also in my social and professional life. Lightbulb moment: I don’t have to give a response right away! If I am a thoughtful, intentional person, then I need to think and have intent about how I am spending my time, even if it something as small as an two hour commitment. (This is also a good strategy when someone asks you to make a donation of some sort and you want to take the time to research the cause or organization.)

Asking someone for a day or a week to think about it is reasonable and, if nothing else, will give me more time to formulate my no. (A side note: if anyone every demands an immediate answer, then no is probably the right one!).


So what is an ungracious way too respond? Coming across as holier than thou or making blanket statements as to why no one should say yes.

Example:

“Our family thinks children should …..(insert any option here).”

“I don’t do a lot of volunteer stuff because I think it’s (insert negative opinion here).”

You get the idea. Always decline something with humility and grace, leaving aside judgements or potentially hurtful opinions.

What are your thoughts on this “How to Say No” post? How do you say no? Share below to help other readers out!

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2 thoughts on “How to Say No, Graciously

  1. Another great post, Lee! I do a lot of asking and I say I generally don’t need a reason at all – if it’s “no”, it’s “no”. Maybe the reason is “I just don’t want to” – that should be a good enough reason, but no one is going to actually say that. I know that this is outside of this topic, but there is definitely some etiquette in ASKING. Nothing is more of a turn-off than someone who can’t accept “no”. I’ve found that people who happily say “yes” are 100x better at their task than someone I begged to do it, so I try to use a pretty low pressure approach. I’ve tried to get better at recognizing when someone has trouble saying “no” and I try to give them an easy out if they are hemming and hawing about the decision – that’s a tougher call – you don’t want to talk someone out of the job, but she’s overcommitted, I’m not sure I want her on my team! No matter what being a gracious recipient of “no” will go a long way.
    I am SO appreciative of your post like this – I used “I know you’ll understand” just the other day when turning someone down – I was very glad to have a good, solid phrase to use!

    1. Thank you! That is really great advice, Claire, and so true. I definitely need to write about that in a post. And glad that phrase helped you out; I use it all the time! Thanks for commenting!

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