Why is it so difficult to say “no”? It’s easy to become overwhelmed with crazy days and crowded calendars.  Even so, many of us feel badly when we have to deny a request.  Here are seven ways to regain some control of your time while maintaining your personal integrity.

  1. News Flash!  When someone makes a request of you, you don’t have to respond immediately.  If someone insists on an immediate commitment, perhaps they are actually making a demand rather than a request. They are demonstrating that they do not respect you or your time, so that “should” be  an easy no, but even then, actually saying the word is not always easy. Reply that you will check your calendar and get back to them by a specific time. (and do so) Think of it as a cooling off period. Even 20 or 30 minutes allows thoughtful consideration rather than a potentially emotional response.

  2. Consider whether the request fits with your priorities, personal mission and existing schedule. If so, happily make and honor the commitment. If not, graciously decline. This sounds rather formal, but these criteria represent the difference between just a crazy schedule and having a fulfilling life.  A 30 second request to help move some boxes, doesn’t won’t require this level of scrutiny, but then, those 30 seconds probably won’t derail your day. This process is best suited to requests for larger chunks of time, or recurring events that have a way of taking on a life of their own.  Great examples:  Being asked to serve on a board or head up  a fundraiser or event.

  3. When you do decide to say no, be polite but firm.  This is best done with a short, simple statement.  It is not necessary or helpful to share your decision making process or criteria with the requestor. In fact it can be very counterproductive. Giving a reason as to why you aren’t attending an event, allows the requestor to evaluate your reason and then try to “problem-solve” the perceived dilemma for you.  “Thank you for considering me, however I am not able to participate at this time.” Or, “thanks so much for asking, but my calendar is full at this time.”  And it’s not a lie, if you have decided that you only want to attend one social event each week and you already have one booked for this week, your calendar is full.

  4. After you say no, stop talking or move onto another subject. Otherwise, you risk talking yourself right back into a commitment. Silence need not be uncomfortable. Use the time to pause your thoughts and strengthen your resolve.

  5. Start thinking in shades of gray.  It’s not always all or nothing.  Often, people make a general request that reflects a specific need. Determine the actual need before you respond.  A request to organize the school potluck (something you don’t have time for) may just reflect a need for someone who can create a spreadsheet and share it on google docs. (Something you can do in your sleep.) Or, if it is something you would like to help with, be specific in your availability:  “My calendar is full this week, I would have some time available next week, Tuesday afternoon if you still need assistance.”

  6. Say yes at the right level for you.  I love to cook, and am often asked to provide meals for different groups with which my family or I have an association.  I may have to say no to a three-course catered meal on a weeknight, but can say yes to calling in pizza delivery, which depending on the circumstances may be just as appreciated.  How do I let my style and integrity show through?  I order good pizza, make sure I address any special dietary needs of the group, vegetarian, gluten-free, make sure there are ample plates, napkins and I always provide dessert!  So, I’ve said no to the formal dinner, but I’ve met the need with a personalized touch.

  7. Many telemarketers are instructed to keep pitching until they hear the word “no” three times.  Children are inadvertently trained to just keep asking until Mom or Dad become worn down and say yes. And so, many folks will just keep asking, changing the request ever so slightly hoping for a yes.  Be aware of these tactics and hold your “no”.  You can retrain people with regard to their expectations and the way they treat you. The most important component of that training:  consistency.

  8. If you feel a request if for a very worthy cause, but it does not meet the “criteria” listed in #2, you may wish to offer something other than yourself and your time.  Perhaps you could provide a contact or make an introduction to someone for whom the request is well suited and would be happy to help out.  To maintain your personal and professional integrity, this statement must be true and the referral genuine.  And as always, give the contact a heads up that you’ve shared their information.  In this way, you can still be of service and your “no” turns into a potential networking opportunity.

Saying “no” with honesty and integrity becomes easier with practice and gives you a sense of freedom and confidence.  Saying “no” allows you the time and energy to fully engage in all of the “yes” of life.