January 6, 2024




How to Say ‘No’ Gracefully

At a glance

Today’s Fast Summary:

  • When you say ‘no’ to someone, you are implicitly rejecting them, their idea, or their request. That's not a fun or easy thing to do, and often very awkward.

  • The ‘Stop Doing’ Framework is an effective way to assess whether ‘no’ is necessary.

  • Greg McKeown’s famous book Essentialism, discusses the most effective ways to say ‘no’ gracefully. Try them today.

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How to Say ‘No’ Gracefully

Many of us know that no one enjoys hearing the word ‘no.’ Because of this, we avoid doing so. 

Saying ‘no’ is painful. It feels aggressive and comes with a negative connotation. You fear that you’re letting the person down, and feel guilty. 

When we say ‘no’ to someone, we are implicitly rejecting them, their idea, or their request. That's not a fun or easy thing to do, and often very awkward.

However, this causes us to say ‘yes’ to everything we can and overcommit. You can’t say ‘yes’ to everything and expect to maintain performance. 

Josh Billings, a humorist, said, “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.”

To say ‘no’ effectively, first, assess the question. Decide if ‘no’ is appropriate. The ‘Stop Doing’ Framework is an effective tool for this, but a streamlined version is summarised below: 

Do your due diligence. Clarify what the person is asking and ask specific questions. Ask the other person: 

  • What is the date and time/timeline? 

  • What is the deliverable requested? 

  • When is the deadline? 

  • Which resources are required? 

Mentally, run a quick cost/benefit analysis. Ask yourself: 

  • Who is the person asking me? 

  • What is my relationship to them? 

  • Who is the authority on the issue? 

  • What are the potential benefits? 

  • What are the obvious and hidden costs? 

For example, your friend is asking you to look over their resume, but you’re swamped with work and personal obligations. 

Ask them for context and deadlines. You might ask: 

  • What changes need to be made?

  • How ‘rough’ is the resume right now? 

  • When do you need it? 

  • Would you like me to proofread, or make in-depth edits? 

These questions will determine your analytical approach. Then, based on their responses, ask yourself the following: 

  • Do I have time? 

  • Am I the person for the job? 

  • What are the potential benefits? 

  • Any costs? 

Some questions might render this analysis unnecessary. Or, let’s say your friend needs in-depth edits, and they plan to apply for a job tomorrow. 

In these cases, you’ll have to say ‘no.’ 

The best way to say “no” is—you guessed it—say no. If you have the confidence to do this, great! Do it. 

If you don't, saying “no” becomes a lot easier when you have go-to phrases to fall back on.   

Greg McKeown’s famous book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, discusses the most effective ways to say ‘no.’ 

A few of his methods are summarised here. The following are 7 of the best ways to say “no” gracefully. 

1. The “Let Me Check My Calendar And Get Back To You.”  

Have you ever impulsively said yes in the heat of the moment and later regretted it? This approach will save you in those future moments. 

Take time to pause, respond, and analyze in a controlled way that matches your goals. It also places you in a position of power. 

If this is your chosen approach, ensure you follow up with your response. If you don’t, you risk being characterized as ‘flakey’ or forgetful. 

The person deserves an answer. 

2. The Soft "No" (Or The "No But")

Offer a small concession or delay the request to a time that suits you better. 

This approach lets the other person know that you’re willing to help and that you value your relationship with them. It sets a clear time boundary. 

For example, if someone asks you to meet up next week, you could say, “I'm consumed with writing my book right now, but I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together in X month.”

3. Use Automatic Email Replies

Automatic email replies are the most socially acceptable “No's” available to you. 

They’re not insensitive. They’re efficient. When you clearly define boundaries, people tend to respect them. 

When you can afford to and don't have people relying on you for fast responses, use automatic replies to guard your time.

4. The “I can't do it, but X might be interested”

It's tempting to think our help is uniquely invaluable, but often people requesting something don't really care if we're the ones who help them—as long as they get the help.

Redirection is a graceful way to say no yet still help.

For example, you could say to your friend asking you for resume help, “I can’t right now, but I know that X, Y, Z are great with technical documents—have you asked them?” 

Redirection is a graceful way to say no yet still help the other person. It also affirms your relationships and lets them know you care. 

5. Say, "Yes. What should I deprioritize?"

This is most appropriate in a work context to superiors or colleagues. 

It assures you’re aligned with your organization’s goals and missions while maintaining personal boundaries. 

For example, your boss asks you to undertake a new project. You say, “Yes, I'm happy to make this the priority. Which of my X, Y, and Z other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?”

This approach illustrates strong time management skills. 

6. Use the words, "You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y."

This approach is best for requests you want to support somewhat but not entirely. It’s most effective for close friends and family. 

For example, your friend asks if you can drive them somewhere. You say, “You are welcome to borrow my car. I'm willing to leave the keys here for you.” 

By this, you are saying, “I won't be able to drive you.”

7. The Awkward Pause

This approach is uncomfortable but clearly communicates your message. Instead of being controlled by awkward silence, use it as a tool.

When a request comes to you in person, pause for a moment and mentally count to 3 before responding. Or, simply wait for the other person to fill the silence void.

Oftentimes, they'll change/take back their request. If they don’t, employ another approach. 

Notes on ‘No’

Saying "No" is hard. We are wired to conform and people-please. Saying ‘No’ runs counter to these innate human behaviours. 

However, when we don't say ‘no,’ we risk giving away our most precious resource—time. 

Saying ‘no’ and living more on your terms is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Do it more

Reflect on how and when you say ‘no.’ Then, reimagine saying ‘no’ to a request you’ve received previously. Consider the practical ways you can use ‘no’ to optimize your time.

  1. What is your relationship with ‘no?’

    a. When was the last time you said ‘no?’ Why? In which context? 

    b. Do you feel comfortable saying ‘no?’ Why or why not? Consider a past experience—the one you thought of in the last question or another entirely. 

    c. How do you feel when others say ‘no’ to you? Why? 

    d. When was the last time someone declined your request? What happened? How did you feel?

  1. Consider a time when you said ‘yes’ when you wanted to say ‘no.’ 

    a. In what context did this occur? What was the request? Imagine it in detail. 

    b. Why did you say ‘yes?’ Take a moment to reflect on your motivations. 

    c. What would’ve happened had you declined? What costs would you have incurred?

  1. How can you say ‘no?’

    a. Consider the scenario you imagined in the last question. Which of the methods discussed in this article would’ve been appropriate given the context? 

    b. How could you have incorporated these methods? What would you have said differently?

Warren Buffet said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Say no.


I’d love to hear from you:

  • When do you struggle to say ‘no?’ 

  • Which of these methods did you feel most comfortable using? 

  • Why is ‘no’ difficult for you?

Tweet at me (@_alexbrogan) or respond to this email — I’ll try to respond to everyone.

Have a wonderful Saturday, all.

Until next time,


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