How To Say 'No' Nicely

By Mo Bunnell

Sometimes we need to say no to be able to focus on what we want to do, instead of life selecting what it wants us to do.

Sometimes a blunt No way, man. I'm not doin’ that! with a laugh works, but rarely.

Especially at work, it can be a delicate dance to say no. What other people think is right for us, might not be right for us. We need to be able to say no in a way that is clear, but soft enough that it retains the relationship and keeps the door open for future opportunities.

A few years ago, I was frustrated by not being able to focus. I didn’t have the time I needed for some important work I wanted to do. So, I developed a formula for Saying No, Nicely. It’s worked really well for me. It’s authentic, empathic, and helpful.

If you are a fan of the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, you’ll see the method I outline connects in all four ways we humans think. So, no matter who you talk to, this formula resonates.

Here are the steps for Saying No, Nicely:

Step 1: Show empathy. “I would really love to do _____. It would be ______.”

Step 2: Be logical and analytical. “But I can’t right now, because _______.”

Step 3: Display creativity to solve the person’s need. “One way we could solve this would be to ____”

Step 4: Give a clear plan, a next step. “How about I/we ___________?”

Here are few examples:

“Hey Jim! I would love to have lunch with you. It would be fun to catch up. I’ve got an issue though. I’ve averaged working 72 hours a week the last two months cranking on a project. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, because the due date is in about 8 short weeks. Can we can get together after that? Let’s circle back on January 1st and pick a date.”

“Mary, I’d love to help you out on this, but I think I’m the wrong resource. I know I’ve done this the last 5 years. You’re a great boss for asking me to keep doing it, but it takes me about 4.5 hours each week – over 200 hours a year. If I do this every week, I don’t think I can finish the redesign project you said was my biggest priority. The good news is that I think Sam is ready to do this. It’s a bit of a stretch for him, but I’m happy to teach him the process and mentor him as he has questions. It would be a great growth opportunity for him. How does that sound? Could we discuss it on our one-on-one call Monday?”

“Phil, you know I love your cause, but I can’t give more money right now. We take giving very seriously here. We’ve already aligned our annual donation strategy around three non-profits where we donate money, time, and our intellectual capital. What I could do is add your name to our list as we revisit our top three choices every two years. Also, I wonder if Sue over at The Coca-Cola Company would be interested in what you’re doing. I’d be happy to make an introduction. What do you think?”

This method works.

As I tested using it myself, I found the key for me was getting really specific in the second step. It helped for me to find a metric, a number, or something logical to drive the point home. I found fuzzy words like “I’ve been working a lot.” didn’t work as well as specific statements like “I’ve averaged working 72 hours a week.”

Being able to focus on precious few projects is a key to success in life. We all have our most important goals. We all have the ability to change the world. The hardest part is to free up time.

And the fastest way to free up time is to Say No, Nicely.


Ps I love getting feedback on how this method works for other people. Try it, and let me know how it works for you.