Getting to No: How to Refuse a Request


When Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, tried to order a cup of green tea with sugar in Japan, she never expected to have her simple request refused. The waiter’s explanation? “We don’t put sugar in green tea.” Iyengar respectfully remarked that she understood that the while the Japanese don’t put sugar in their green tea, in her native India, green tea is often enjoyed sweet. Once again, the waited told her no. When Iyengar persisted, the waiter brought the manager, who declared, “We don’t have sugar.” Unable to procure a cup of green tea to her liking, Iyengar ordered a cup of coffee. When the coffee arrived, what was sitting on the saucer? Two packets of sugar.

Iyengar recognized that her waiter’s no was his attempt to keep her from embarrassing herself from ordering tea that would violate culinary and cultural customs. It may sound ridiculous to us, but I recall going to Ben’s Kosher Deli in New York with a friend who tried to order a cheeseburger for lunch. The answer was no, and sour pickles would have to do instead.

Sometimes we have to say no to requests. It may be that a request violates dietary laws, or seems to violate the barriers of time and space (as in when you simply cannot take on one more task). Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once remarked, “The art of leadership is saying no…It is very easy to say yes.” I concur: For most of us who do not want to disappoint, reject, risk recrimination, or imperil our reputations as doers or team players, saying no feels anathema to us.

If you struggle to utter a “no” even when you know that it’s what’s called for, here are six ways to make rejecting a request a little easier:

1) Know your “no”. When I train lay and professional fundraisers to solicit gifts for their organizations, I suggest that they unpack all of the possible meanings behind a “no” response to a solicitation. Is it “no, not at the amount you’ve asked for”? Is it “no, not right now”? Is it “no, because I have concerns about the organization”? While the role of the solicitor (or a manager, friend, partner, parent, coach, etc.) is to get to the root of the no, if you’re the one giving out the no, share the context too.

However, if you’re going to fudge the context, skip it altogether. Don’t tell someone the problem is transportation when it isn’t — and risk their offer to drive you. Don’t say that the barrier is money — and risk someone picking up the tab. Instead, say “I need to say no for personal reasons. I hope you will understand.” Of course, if you’re the mom or dad, “No, because I said so” still works when used judiciously.

2) Decline and counter-offer at the same time by saying what you can do instead: "While I can't take the lead on this project due to the upcoming budget deadline I have, I am happy to contribute my ideas to whoever does take the lead." That’s a good strategy for turning down the primary responsibility of an assignment while still offering to take a supporting role. If you’re feeling generous, you might add this question at the end, “Would that work for you?” Be prepared to take a sigh of relief if you get a yes – but also be prepared to work out other alternative solutions if the answer is – you guessed it – no.

3) Express your appreciation and your regret that you need to say no: "Thank you so much for thinking of me for facilitating the board meeting. I'm really flattered that you thought I had the skills to take on such a frontal role. Unfortunately, I won't be able to give this the time and attention that such an important job requires so I need to decline." Of course, this is when you will need to stand your ground as the requester starts to undersell the gig, as in, “It won’t really take that long for you to prepare,” or “It’s not really that big a deal.” This is when you need to become a broken record (remember those?) with a skipping needle and repeat over and over again, “Thank you again for asking. Not this time” or whatever mantra works for you.

4) State your positive intention for the long term relationship while declining the request. It’s a way to let the other person know that your “no” isn’t a rejection of them long-term. It’s a no – for right now. “I want to make sure that you know that you can still count on me to be a team player even thought I can’t participate in this particular team meeting” or “I want our departments to work well together moving forward and I look forward to working on that with you. Nevertheless, at this point, we’re not going to be able to partner with you on this project.”

5) Ask for more information before you decline: "Sounds interesting, and I need some more information here. How does this assignment fit into our departmental goals/organizational goals? What outcomes are you looking for here? What about me/my role do you think makes this assignment right for me? Who else have you asked/considered? Who else is on board? When does this need to be done?" Often, through the process of questioning, the requester will reconsider whether this assignment really needs to be done by you — or at all.

6) If your boss asks you to take on something that will put you on overload but you don't feel like you can say no, ask her to help you re-prioritize: "Before I take this on, let's sit down together and look at everything that I'm working on, and we can figure out which of my other projects I can put off for now/delegate to someone else/stop working on." Sometimes, all you need to do is show how much you already have on your plate.

When it comes to saying no, you want to be strategic, respectful, discerning — and flexible where appropriate. Practice saying no and you’ll likely find that you haven’t lost your friends, your credibility, or your job. As the late Steve Jobs said of Apple’s success, "It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much."

What do you need to say no to?