Let Them Down Easy: 4 Ways to (Nicely) Say No

As an entrepreneur, setting limits for what you take on is essential—not only for your sanity, but also for the health of your business. Opportunities for new partnerships, projects, and initiatives come at you nearly every day, and there’s simply no way you can say yes to everything.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to say no. Sometimes our good intentions—like our desire to be helpful—get in the way of turning down requests we know we should. Other times, we say yes simply because saying no feels bad. But when we say yes for the wrong reasons, we waste our time, we drain our energy and our resources, and we can give away valuable information.

So, one of the best things you can do for your business is to get comfortable saying no. Next time you need to turn down a request, just try one of these four (non-cringe-inducing!) strategies to let someone down gently.

1. Let Them Know You Wish You Could Help

Saying no can be softened by simply prefacing it with your desire to help—it’s always easier to hear bad or disappointing news when it’s couched in good intentions.

Say: “Thanks for thinking of me for this opportunity. I really wish I was in a position to take advantage of it because your organization and mission sound terrific. However, I’ve recently decided to focus on cultivating more speaking opportunities, so I’m limiting my writing commitments. If only there were more hours in the week!”

2. Use the ol’ “It’s Not You, It’s Me” Line

While Seinfeld didn’t give this line the best reputation, it’s actually a great thing to communicate—even if you can’t say yes, the last thing you want is for the other person to feel badly for asking. So, make it clear that you can’t fulfill the request because of your own limitations, not on account of what’s being asked. (It’s also not a bad idea to validate the request with a compliment!)

Say: “What a great idea to look for a promotional partner for your upcoming product launch! Unfortunately, I don’t think my company is the best fit—we have a policy that we can only promote our members’ services. I’m sure that there are other communities, however, that would jump at the opportunity.”

3. Tell It Like It Is

Sometimes, it helps to provide the person with a simple explanation about why you’re saying no, particularly if the information can help her out. You can offset feeling bad about saying no by feeling good about preventing her from learning a lesson the hard way.

Say: “Your event sounds wonderful and I’m happy to help promote it. However, I’m not able to sponsor it—in my experience, that kind of arrangement hasn’t worked as well as I would have wanted. I’ve found that guests often are confused or distracted by too many messages. I want your guests to be focused on your and your event—not my company!”

4. Offer Another Resource

One of the most helpful things you can do when saying no is giving the other person advice on where they should turn next. Whether it’s a specific person or place, or just an idea about what you would do if you were in her shoes, it helps her out by letting her know how to move forward.

Say: “Thanks for contacting me. Unfortunately, I’m not able to help, as I no longer do this kind of work. However, I can’t recommend my colleague Jane Doe highly enough. I’ve sent many people her way over the years, and they’ve all loved working with her.”

By taking on projects you shouldn’t be or saying yes to partnerships you’d rather not, you’re not helping anyone out in the long run—and you’re doing a big disservice to yourself. So, next time, don’t be afraid to just say no. And don’t feel guilty! If you do it the right way, there won’t be any hard feelings.

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