Learning To Say No: 6 Simple Tips To Do It

By Celestine Chua

June 10, 2011   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Business woman yes no

A few months ago, I received a business pitch. It was from an acquaintance I was on good terms with, and the pitch was based on something we verbally discussed and agreed on in the past. However, sometime had passed since our last conversation, and things had changed.

I was no longer keen on the opportunity, but didn’t quite know how to put it across to him. I didn’t want to jeopardize our relationship and any potential future working opportunities because of this.

So I procrastinated in replying to the mail. I put it into a “reply later” folder and got on to other stuff. Every few days when I check my folder, it’d be there, and I’d think “Ah I’ll reply this later”. I wondered if he would be angry knowing that I had changed my stance. At times I contemplated not replying at all, but I thought it wouldn’t be appropriate, especially since we knew each other and we had a common friend too.

Finally one day, I decided to get on with it and reply to the mail. I typed out the mail, and crafted it a few words at a time. In it, I apologized for my delayed reply, and at the same time truthfully explained my situation and that I had no plans to take up the opportunity anymore. After reading it through, I clicked “Send” and hoped for the best.

Within 10 minutes of sending the mail, I got a reply, much to my surprise. It was early in the morning (8ish) and I didn’t think that he would be in the office. The reply was very amiable. He said there was no worries at all, and he wished me a great year ahead in the meantime. Just like that. And it was done.

Have you ever had to say no before and feel conflicted about doing so? Many times we make a big deal out of saying “no”, afraid that we will be committing a hideous crime by saying. In our minds, we are scared that the other people will be angry, that we will be loathed on, that we’ll be deemed as making things difficult for others.

The thing is, many of these thoughts are self-created, and not real. Saying no really is a prerogative, and shouldn’t be as difficult as we make it out to be. It’s about learning how to do so. Here are 6 simple tips how you can learn to say no:

  1. Realize it’s okay to say no
    No matter who you are speaking to and what the situation is, you have the right to say no. The only reason why you feel you don’t have that right is because you choose to relinquish it to others. Rather than think that we can’t say no, it’s about learning how to say it and put it across in a manner that the other party can understand and accept.

Even if it’s your boss or someone of higher seniority that you’re dealing with, and you don’t feel that you can say no, realize that it’s your choice to say yes because you’re unwilling to deal with the consequences of saying no. Ultimately everything in life boils down to us and the choices we make.

  • Know your priorities
    What are your biggest goals this year? Would you prefer to spend time on these goals or on this new commitment? Knowing your goals reinforces your reasons for saying no. For example since a while back, I decided to stop taking pro-bono speaking/workshop requests, because each commitment takes up considerable time and effort and it just isn’t worth the effort to do them for free anymore. I’ve also decided to say no to local engagements, as these require me to be situated in Singapore, and my plans for the year ahead involve traveling overseas. Knowing my vision and plans has made it much easier to say no. 
  • Write everything down first
    If you’re not sure how to start, dump out everything on your mind first in the email, without intending to send it out right away. It can be gibberish. It can be thoughts of frustration. Treat it as writing a draft reply. The process of doing this helps sort out your thoughts. After you finish dumping out your thoughts, you’ll find it much easier to craft your actual reply from there. This works for me every time. 
  • Keep it simple
    There’s no need to over-explain yourself. Simply say no, and give the key reason why. Some people may run into the mistake of writing a lengthy explanation letter/email, and it’s unnecessary. Not only does it bog down the other party with details, it also weakens your position. In my rejection mails, I usually keep them to 3 paragraphs – first paragraph as a greeting, and the second paragraph with my rejection and short explanation why. In the last paragraph, I provide a couple of alternative options he/she can seek out (see tip #5). 
  • Provide an alternative
    This is not necessary, but if you feel bad about saying no, you can provide an alternative option to cushion out the effect. For example, if the person wants to work on a project with you but you cannot commit to it, you can recommend a few leads to him/her who can do equally good job as you. That way, the person won’t be left hanging and he/she can seek out these options instead. Usually in my rejections, I’ll provide a couple of quick leads/options out of courtesy. 
  • Just say no
    Sometimes I wonder about how to say no, and in the end I just go with a straightforward “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t take it up” answer. Surprisingly, the other parties take to it very readily like the example above, making me realize that a lot of conflicts I have with saying no are more my own illusions than anything else! As long as you’re earnest, candid and respectful of the other party in the reply, there shouldn’t be any reason why there would be an issue. 

How about you?Is there a request you’re planning to say no to? How can you apply the tips above to send your message across? Share in the comments area below!

Celestine Chua

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