What’s the best way to politely say, “no”? Sometimes, we must decline an invitation or request. How might we do so, graciously and purposefully? How can we leave the requester feeling heard and appreciated, despite the “no”? Here’s how to graciously say no: ground your no in a higher yes.

How to say no - Ground your no in a higher yes

Three pitfalls to avoid.

1. Don’t start with sorry. When you lead with sorry, you’re indicating regret to the requester. Seems reasonable, right? Well, on the other side, a quick sorry can be perceived as disingenuous. “You’re not really sorry, you just don’t want to do it.” Perhaps, “You didn’t even fully understand what I was asking for.” Then, while a more drawn out apology may land slightly better, you’re still leaving the requester with a hard pass.

How to say no - Don't start with sorry.

2 Don’t give an excuse. Someone has approached you with a need, underpinned by hope and expectation. Therefore, an excuse can feel roundabout, like you’re skirting the hard “no,” and yet planning to decline, anyway.

How to say no - Don't give an excuse

3 Don’t jump into an explanation. Similar to leading with an excuse, responding with an explanation can be perceived as a weak “no.” And frankly, the requester is unlikely to care. Their own need (and ego) are on the line here.

How to say no - Don't jump into an explanation

Instead, ladder up to a higher yes.

Step 1: Positively acknowledge the requester’s intent. If they’ve asked you for something, they feel you have something valuable to offer. So, start by expressing appreciation for the request. “I really appreciate your invitation” or “I’m flattered that you’d ask.” How to graciously say “no”? Start by saying “thank you.”

Step 2: Share your purpose. Make it something simple and aspirational that everyone can understand and respect. Of course, you first need to clearly identify and prioritize your purpose – your “yes.” “My goal this year is to… ” or “I’ve made a commitment to…”

Step 3: Graciously decline. You’ve led with something like, “Thank you so much for the invitation, I’m honored. You know, my priority this quarter is to get to healthier work-family integration. That’s why I’ve committed to having dinner with my family at least three nights during the work week.” Now, move to Step Three with something like: “Therefore, I don’t have the capacity for an extra obligation at this time”. The requester may not be happy, but they feel recognized, and can’t help but understand and appreciate your “higher yes.”

Step 4: Close with an alternative. Maybe there’s something else you can offer.

i) A different way to support, like taking on an advisor role. “I can’t set aside that amount of time now, but if you email me questions on the subject, I’d be glad to respond with my thoughts on a monthly basis.”

ii) An alternate resource, like a colleague who may be able and interested to help. “While I can’t take this on right now, Henry has deep expertise in the subject and loves to coach others. I can ask if he’s available, if you’re interested.”

iii) An invitation to return later. “While I can’t commit the time now, should the need persist, come back in July and let’s talk.”

Saying “no” is never easy, but when we ground our no in a higher yes, we turn the decline into a more positive engagement. Meanwhile, we’re reminding ourselves of our “higher yes” and keeping our eyes, attention and energy focused on our North Star.”

How to say no - Ladder up to a higher yes

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