Saying no is an essential professional skill.

And that’s true even when you feel the self-doubt that saying no is going to make you appear as if you’re shirking responsibility, being lazy, or being argumentative.

So today we’re going to cover some of the basics of how to say no to things and do so with compassion, with gratitude when warranted, and in a way that’s professional but firm so that you can keep your time and mental space available for the things you need to do.

1. Saying No Doesn’t Need To Be Aggressive

Often, people who aren’t used to saying no to things think that doing so means it has to come with an aggressive stance or tone, as if the only way to set a boundary is to do so loudly and emphatically.

There’s a time for that, mostly when people don’t respect you setting the boundary the first time. But start with the benefit of the doubt that the person you’re saying no to will respond to your boundaries in a positive way.

That means taking a deep breath, and if you need to, stepping away from a knee-jerk defensive reaction out of the gate so you don’t front load your “no” with resentment or anger. You can absolutely still say no with a smile on your face – or at the very least, without an air of angst or negativity – and get the job done.

2. You Don’t Need to Apologize, Either.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to trip all over yourself to be sorry that you can’t or won’t do the thing being asked of you. “No” is still a complete sentence, and it doesn’t always have to come with qualifiers to be polite.

You can be appreciative of opportunities and gracious about being asked to be involved in things without having to apologize when you decline. If you’re a pleaser by nature, you may have to work extra hard to avoid tacking on “I’m sorry” when you say no, especially if you’re not actually sorry!

3. You Can Offer Explanations, But At Your Discretion.

Sometimes we feel compelled to offer some reasoning for why we’re saying no to something, especially if it’s for a request from a boss or a client who has hired us to do a job.

In those cases, remember that your explanation can be situational or categorical, but need not include detailed specifics all the time.

For example, you can say “I really can’t take that on right now because other projects have maxed out my capacity” without going into detail about every other commitment you’ve made. You can also say “I have a conflict with that date/time” without offering that you have a personal medical appointment or a family commitment that you can’t or won’t move…or just that you need some time to rest and not have an appointment.

Sometimes clients or colleagues will ask for more details, and whether you offer them is a factor of the relationship and the trust you have with someone. In the case of a boss, maybe they’re asking out of concern or to help you assess priorities and tasks.

But some people – especially constant takers or manipulators – will simply keep adjusting their request to counter your objections until you feel goaded into saying yes. If you feel compelled to explain or caught in that loop, keep your reasons general rather than specific, and practice the phrase “Unfortunately I can’t be flexible on this, but I appreciate your persistence.”

4. Offer Alternatives…But Only If You Mean Them.

I turned down a speaking engagement last week because it was unpaid and I wasn’t willing to waver on that. So my response was simply “Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m not accepting uncompensated invitations for speaking right now. I wish you the best with your event!” Full stop.

I could have countered with something if I felt like it, say if I had a book out and I said I’d be willing to have them purchase books instead of paying my speaking fee. But that wasn’t an alternative for me, I didn’t want to do the event, so I didn’t offer alternatives.

Sometimes if your capacity is limited and you really do regret that you can’t say yes, you can mention that a different time, date, or circumstance would allow you to say yes. It can also be a great opportunity to pay it forward to someone else. Offer to make that intro to another freelancer or speaker, point to the work and capabilities of another colleague, or suggest resources they may not have considered.

5. Practice!

Here are a few sample “no” variations that you can practice to help you pull them out when you need them:

  • “My current commitments mean I can’t take that on right now, but I appreciate you thinking of me.” You can add something like “Please reach out if your timing/budget/deadline changes” if those are factors in your turning it down (but remember #4!)
  • “My fees are firm for that service, I’m afraid.”
  • “I’m not available for that project, but I’d be glad to keep it in mind if I know anyone that might be a fit.”
  • “My time is already fully committed on other projects, but if my involvement is critical, let’s talk about what I can de-prioritize” (this one is for the boss or other leaders)
  • “No, I won’t be able to fit that into my schedule this week.”
  • “Now isn’t a good time for me, but I’ll let you know if my schedule opens up.”
  • “Unfortunately that’s just not possible, but here’s what I can offer instead.”
  • “I know that’s not the answer you hoped for, but I appreciate your understanding.”

And remember…

Saying no is what enables you to say YES when you actually need and want to and gives you the mental, emotional and cognitive capacity to handle your existing commitments, responsibilities and hobbies.

If you do so graciously, politely and firmly, it gets easier to do and you’ll be so thankful you did it.

How about you, are you good at saying no when necessary? Any other tips and tricks you’d like to share? Can I help you say no to something effectively? The comments belong to you.