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How to say “no” gracefully

Categories: Career, The Juggle, Working? Living?

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It happens to most professionals, regardless of their line of work: People want you to weigh in with your opinion, but they don’t want to pay you for your time because it’s “just a little question” or “it’ll only take a second” or “we’re family, after all.” But when those request pile up, it goes from a minute or two here and there to actual, billable hours for which you’re not getting paid—a sure sign that it’s time to say no.

But saying no feels… wrong, sometimes. You don’t want to leave a friend in the lurch, and how do you tell a relative that you usually get a-certain-dollar-amount-per-fraction-of-an-hour when the “quick question” is coming from a client rather than a cousin? And what if the request is coming from someone with whom you want to build a bridge, not burn one?

I’ve written in the past about whether it’s ever OK to work for free (and whether it’s worth it to keep working when a job stops paying you), but the real tough part for me—and for many people—is saying no gracefully. Here are four tips on how to do it:

1. Be polite. It’s easy to lose your cool when it feels like someone is making unrealistic demands, but if you make sure your response is polite, you’ll be more likely to preserve the relationship. (Yes, you should respond. Ignoring the request may be easier, but it’s rude.)

2. Be direct. “Maybe,” “I’ll think about it,” or “I don’t know…” doesn’t mean “no”—those things mean “ask me again later.” If you’re being asked to volunteer your time and expertise, but can’t afford to work for free, say so: “I’m sorry, but my workload is such that I’m simply not able to do large projects without compensation at this time.” If you simply don’t want to be involved, say so (politely): “Thank you so much for reaching out, but I’m afraid I’m not able to participate right now.” In most cases, you don’t owe them an explanation, just a response.

3. Be firm. If someone is asking you for a favor, you are not obligated to oblige. Remember that you are your own brand—if you do shoddy work because you’re overbooked or overtired, it reflects on your overall image, even if it’s not representative of your usual standards. This is worth keeping in mind if the company simply isn’t one you want to work with; it’s your name on your work, do you want your name associated with their brand?

4. Offer an alternative. If the request is coming from an organization I want to work with or a cause I want to support, I offer a compromise: I’d be willing to allow them to reprint something I’ve written previously, or I could write a shorter version of the article they’re asking me to write, or I could come up with the interview questions that they can then hire/ask someone else to ask.

I’ll be honest: There are people who will push you, no matter how gracefully, tactfully, firmly or politely you say no. There are people who will be offended that you won’t do what they’re asking, even if what their asking is totally outrageous. I’ve offered compromises that don’t get a response; I consider their non-response their own version of “no, thank you.”

How do you say “no” gracefully?

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