A Six Step Strategy on How to Say No…Nicely

A six step strategy on how to say no nicely

Learning to say no is key to effective leadership.

It’s difficult because when you’re starting out (like I did 20+ years ago) with almost no people, no money and lots of time on your hands, you end up saying yes to just about anything to get something started.

When you got nothing…you jump at anything that comes your way. (I’m not recommending that as a strategy…I’m just saying that’s how it begins for many of us.)

But eventually, your opportunities exceed the time available to fill them.  So you work more hours.  Get more efficient. Learn some time management.

But then you hit another wall. And you realize:

I will never be efficient enough to handle it all.

Some of the things (okay, maybe a lot of things) I’m saying yes to are counter-productive.

Yes to everything means no to the most important things

If I keep working this hard, I will burn out before 40 (I defied the odds and burned out at 41)

No becomes your friend.  I’ve posted about that before.  But how do you learn to say no without being rude?

If you don’t master that skill, you will never manage your priorities well, or you might just become a bit of jerk in trying to do that.  That’s the issue I want us to zero in on.

I’m going to walk you through a strategy that I’ve used to deliver a ‘no’ that makes people still feel (we hope) valued.  It works whether you have an assistant or not (I do). It combines both the type of words you use (tone) in all conversation and some practical steps to help people get what they want without getting you involved.

A Six-Step Strategy on How to Say No…Nicely:

Step One: Say you’d love to meet.

Try starting the conversation or email with something like I’d love to meet with you or That’s an interesting idea! Thanks for sharing it with me. I would hope these statements are true (and it’s almost always true in my case…I want to meet with far more people than I can).

It lets people know you care about them.  And you began the conversation with a yes. Not a no.

Step Two: Affirm their intention.

Just because you might feel bad about saying no doesn’t mean you need to make them feel bad about it.

Take a few sentences to value their idea. Or let them know you understand why they would want to get together (I can see that…I understand that).

Step Three:  Don’t commit on the spot; ask for a follow-up.

I get requests almost every week to meet with people when they see me face to face.

I almost always tell them to send me or my assistant Sarah an email to set it up. Believe it or not, over half never do.

Interpretation?  The issue probably wasn’t that important to them…and the meetings likely wouldn’t have been a good use of either of our time.

But smile when you say this.  Don’t blow them off.  If you have an assistant, this is a great place to get him or her involved.

Give them your assistant’s email.  If the request comes in via email or DM, send it to your assistant for follow up.  If you don’t have one, relax…the strategy works regardless.

Step Four:  Let them know you can’t help, but someone else can.

If the email or text (I’m quite protective of my cell number, so I rarely get requests to meet via text because all those people are already on my priority list), that’s when Sarah and I start to redirect.

A bridge sentence helps so much here.

Something like “while I’d love to get together, I’m afraid I can’t…” or “that’s such a great idea…I think I know someone who could serve you better…let me introduce you” or “while I’d love to, I’m afraid my schedule just isn’t going to allow it in the next while.  I’m so sorry.”

Step Five: Be Firm.

You will get a few who insist and persist. At that point, you might want to ask several more detailed questions such as:

“Can you tell me exactly what the purpose of the meeting is?”

“Why do you think I am the one who can help you with that?”

“Have you tried talking to others?”

And if it’s still not the best use of your time, then you simply need to say “As much as I’d like to…I can’t. I’m sorry.”

Step Six: Thank them.

Always be kind.

Close kindly on every transaction.

Just because you couldn’t help them doesn’t mean their request isn’t valid.

So thank them for being passionate about the issue or reaching out for help.  You may deny the request, but you want to honour the relationship.

I know what you’re thinking

“But what if you miss some great opportunities by saying no too often?  What if you get it wrong and you should have met with someone?”

To deal with that, I always keep one or two one hour calendar slots open each month for people who aren’t regularly in my relational/work circle but who might be interesting to meet with, even if it’s not 100% strategic.

It’s a pressure release valve on your calendar too, and sometimes some great stories come out of those meetings.  If not, I’m doing for one what I wish I could do for everyone.

Saying no is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership. But you can get better at it and still be nice about it.

Feel Like You Never Have Enough Time?

Advice is one thing. Finding the time to implement it is another.

My High Impact Leader course, is my online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

It’s perfect for leaders who feel like they never have enough time in the day to get it all done.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – Joel Rowland, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell,  Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game-changer.” Pam Perkins,  Colorado Springs, Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reflect, rest and reinvent yourself?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

What About You?

What are you learning on this?  Have you found any great ways of saying no?

A Six Step Strategy on How to Say No…Nicely


  1. Warren Pattison on October 25, 2020 at 9:33 am

    Thank you for this. Would it be possible to offer a verbatim or two of how this works?

  2. edward khaoya on December 30, 2018 at 11:32 am

    I like the post

  3. Dg on July 6, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    I always try my best to never say “no”, but rather to give someone an alternative, like the ones you suggest here. The tough part is when people suspect you’re just trying to pawn them off on someone else. Even introducing them to someone who (most likely) can help them better, it can still feel like a brush-off to some folks. Would love some thoughts on that. (Also, I try to avoid “I really wish I could, but…” because it usually is not true. Just keeping it real! 🙂

  4. […] 1. The ability to say no. One of the reasons churches don’t change is because leaders are unwilling to say no to current members who prefer things the way they were. When you learn to say no to the preferences of some current members, you learn to say yes to a community that is ready to be reached. (For more on learning to say no, see this post.) […]

  5. Daniel Bustamante on March 1, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Nice article as usual… it would have been great to hear specific examples on when to say yes when your head wants to say no….

  6. Ellen Pullen on October 3, 2012 at 12:59 am

    Oooops, some how my comments were posted and I was not finished with my thoughts. Here is the rest of my thoughts on your article.
    Chuck Swindoll has an artistically framed sign that says: What’s Your Motive?
    When I wisely and honestly searched and analyzed the motive on a few instances as why I should serve on a board or say “yes” to being the president of an organization, it became easier to say no.
    When I finally mastered the saying “no” skill, I began to enjoy the margin and allowed myself to be okay with having margin. I realized what some of my motives were when over-scheduling and over-volunteering.
    It is my natural tendency to help, and serving & hospitality are my gifts. Unfortunately, am the over volunteer type. I even read Chuck Swindoll book to help someone else be a better servant. Haha! On the flip side, I am allowing myself to enjoy a life of more selfish living & I have “rest for my soul.”
    Matthew 11:28-29
    Thanks bunches and we are glad we found you.
    P.S. I believe you referenced one of my superhero’s (Andy Stanley) messages, “I’m doing for one what I wish I could do for everyone.”
    I now try to prioritize, keeping that message in mind while saying “NO” to being a caretaker of the masses.
    Have a great week. Thank bunches, we appreciate your articles…..work on your southern drawl, too 🙂

  7. Ellen Pullen on October 3, 2012 at 12:13 am

    Okay, thanks for another article for my husband and I to share with our college age son.
    On saying “NO”: ” If you don’t master that skill, you will never manage your priorities well….” Great counsel!
    Being a southern, Georgia girl, we like to start or end a difficult conversation by saying…”Well… Bless your heart…etc, etc. Then we kindly thank them. We also like to add how we appreciate and understand that they would like to meet. Then say… I am so glad you have called me for the 12th time 🙂 Why, I just insist you meet with _________. He is perfect for your situation or idea. All this has to be said with a strong “southern drawl, of course.
    When I learned to say “no” & allowed myself to say “no,” I finally began to have a peace of mind. I began to enjoy a much simplier life. My life no longer felt overwhelming and exausting.
    In Chuck Swindoll’s book, “Improving Your Serve, The Art of Unselfish Living,” he has an artistically made threea simple three word question peice

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