How to say no, without ruining relationships

If you want something done, ask a busy person.

In my life its certainly true, as I seem to do the most work when I am busiest. But when you get a reputation as someone who can always help others, you tend to get an ever increasing pile if requests for help.  This may be why Warren Buffett says: “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”

For those of us who enjoy being helpful—or just plain polite— saying No isnt an easy task. Many people feel a “no” is a missed opportunity to make a difference and build a relationship. And if it the other person takes your No the wrong way  it can also suggest that you are selfish and rude.

I found that when I became a General Manager the amount of work I took on increased substantially and I really needed a way to politely decline the many requests for help i received. What I learnt was that I now had to qualify those I took the time and effort to assist. I learnt that it was important to say Yes to the right people, and No to the right people.  Say Yes to those who could in return help you (and say No to those with a reputation for not assisting when asked). To say Yes some of the time (when it won’t compromise your own goals and ambitions) to some of the requests (when you have resources or skills that are uniquely relevant). Outside those specific conditions, successful people follow Buffett’s saying and decline helping because saying no frees you up to say yes when it matters more.

OK, we’ve gone through the why to say No, but how, actually can you say no without burning bridges or destroying a relationship with the other person?

Here are 8 Noes that could work for you. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and could prove appropriate with different people in different circumstances:

1. “I’m swamped with work right now, but feel free to follow up, later”

The first response is to explain openly and clearly that your current availability is nil. You may be overseas travelling or facing a Board deadline. And you may have more flexibility a few weeks or months later. This initial response can provide a filter to those who really care the most about connecting with you. Maybe your approach will be to prioritize the people who are passionate and persistent. The downside is that this response can mean you end up helping “the pushy ones” and miss the people who are too respectful of your time to bother you at all, let alone bother you again.

2.  “I’m really not qualified to do what you’re asking, but here’s something that I think could help”

Many requests can be removed from your areas of expertise that saying yes would have been a disservice to the requester. For example don’t ask me for free legal advice! When people reach out to me for legal advice, although I empathize with them, I have no training in law.

Not wanting to leave anyone empty-handed in this case of legal advice, you can suggest the books or websites that give run down of advice or suggestions of approaches.  Referral such as this allow you to avoid saying no outright and to engage equally with everyone in a way that protected your time.

3.  “This isn’t in my area, but I know someone who might be helpful”

If you aren’t in a position to help, but you know of people who could, provided that you have a way to verify the requestor’s trustworthiness, you can facilitate a connection. This will be a huge time-saver and will prove far more helpful than the other approaches. After a referral from me, some people landed jobs, and work for friends from the people asking for assistance.

Despite this appeal of introductions, there is one major downside: they can be an imposition on the person who’s being enlisted to help. So maybe you can check with those people who you are about to recommend to see if they are comfortable with an introduction. That way, you don’t punish your most generous friends/colleagues by overloading them with these requests.  Such an approach will be less likely to damage your relationship or reputation. This can also save some embarrassment if you try to introduce people who already knew each other.

4.  “You two are working toward common goals”

Inevitably, passing connections to skilled colleagues or friends failed in some cases, and the introduction wasn’t productive. How about, instead of inconveniencing one person to help another, consider ways to make mutually beneficial connections. Maybe you have a conncetion with someone in need of help and another from someone starting a consultancy. Rather than putting these two strangers in touch with people from you network, why not connected them to each other. Or for example if you have two tech entrepreneurs asking for feedback on their apps why not put them in contact with one another so they could support each other’s efforts.

5.  “Meet my colleague, who will set up a time to chat”

This is where a great PA or assistant can come into play. When requests come though that could be interesting and beneficial, use your assistant or someone else on your team to make the initial contact and to report back.  You can then jointly evaluate whether there were unique ways you could help.

6. “Others have posed the same question, so let’s chat together”

Maybe you are fielding a series of calls on starting up businesses or requests for sponsorship or support maybe you can create a community around common interests. You can invite them all to a presentation on how to pitch better or to identify sponsorship requests, either in person or over social media connections. This could also be a low-commitment first encounter to gauge how helpful you could be in subsequent interactions with members of the group.

7.  “If I helped you, I’d be letting others down”

Even though you can try to help in other ways, each of these responses meant declining the original request, which is often hard to do. Research shows that saying no can make us appear cold and selfish, and due to gender stereotypes, declining a request for help can cost women more than men. As Sheryl Sandberg observes in Lean In, “when a woman declines to help a colleague, she often receives less favorable reviews and fewer rewards. But a man who declines to help? He pays no penalty.”

The good news is that there’s a friendly way to circumvent this risk. It’s called a relational account, and it involves referencing your commitment to other people when declining the focal person. Studies by Harvard Professors Bowles and Babcock reveal that when we offer relational accounts for going against the norm, we’re viewed more favorably, as we preserve our image as giving and caring.

Here are some examples of responses using relational accounts:

If you get many requests to be a Mentor: “mentoring is one of my top priority professionally, and since I mentor 10 people per year, I don’t have the time to take on additional effective mentoring.”
Speaking requests: “With more than a dozen speaking invitations coming in per week, I have to set a limit for speaking engagements, and at this point, I’m maxed out.”
Introduction requests: “I think I would ruin my relationship with this person if I kept asking them for favours” or “I’m sorry, but I don’t know this person well enough to impose.”

8. The Learning Opportunity

And if someone is so persistent that they just can’t seem to take your other approaches as a no, maybe you can use this throw away line… “I’m sorry to disappoint. One of my goals for this year is to improve my ability to say no—you are a tough audience, and I suppose saying no to you is good practice…”

Well, here are eight ways in which you can say NO more effectively while retaining relationships. Try them out and keep me updated in the comments on your suggestions.