Saying no is both an art and a science. It’s an art because it takes a bit of practice to get the hang of it, improve, and do it with confidence. It’s also a science because there are critically important reasons – both in your personal and professional life – why this is a necessary skill to develop.
When it comes to running your own business (and particularly when you’re doing client work), there are a number of occasions where you’ll regret saying yes, and wish you’d had the foresight to say no!
So I invite you to make a fresh start today, with some compassion in your heart for the old you. Forgive yourself for knowing when you should have said no and ended up doing the work anyway, for taking ill-fitting jobs because you needed the money, and for accepting every difficult client who sucked the will to live out of you: let’s arm ourselves with the proper vocabulary for saying no when needed from now on.
In the list below, you’ll find a bunch of examples that I have collected over time, which are, by the way, all no-phrases that I never learned in school. I was not modeled these behaviors by a fearless woman in my circle or a particularly empowered female boss – so believe me when I say that I need this list as much as you do!
"Get comfortable saying no, without explanation, without apology, without guilt." - Shannan Monson
I have said yes way more times than I’ve said no… Often to my own detriment. Like most people, I was raised in a society that has conditioned us to think that putting others first at any cost was the right thing to do.
The obvious cost of always saying yes to other people’s needs is that you are often saying no to your own needs, and ending up at the bottom of the to-do list. In the bigger picture, over time, the hidden cost of saying yes to helping other people achieve their dreams is that you do not accomplish your own dreams.
Here we’re not talking about parenting small children or caring for aging parents – we’re talking about clients, colleagues, collaborators – heck even friends and family members – who are skilled at asking for too much. Of taking your eyes off the prize. And perhaps you’ve willingly allowed this for too long, simply lacking the phrases that could help you decline more demands with elegance and ease.
It’s okay. You are not flawed. You are not weak. You are not mean, or heartless, or any of the other things you might be worried about. You are getting your priorities straight.
So as you go through this list, bear in mind this fundamental truth: because of the complexity of our lives and the infinite amount of possibilities we are faced with, there will always be more people who want more things from you, and it is an unequivocal fact that you cannot do them all.
Contrary to what the endless do more-do more-do more hustle & grind culture will have us believe, our time is finite. And so are our energetic reserves. So because we as human beings have these limitations, we must simply learn what we were never taught correctly: to be more judicious with our choices of what we will accept to do or not to.
And at the heart of this empowered mindset is one of the most deceptively powerful words around: no.
Every time you say no to someone else, you are saying yes to your own advancement.
"Remember, a lot of your stress comes from the way you respond, not what is being asked of you." - Samantha Ann
A common way to start out is “I’m sorry, but…” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important when you learn to say no, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm and unapologetic about guarding your time. - Leo Babauta
Here are 30+ examples of how to say no professionally:
Pro tip: Give yourself the gift of not overthinking yourself into knots. Just copy and paste a phrase that suits your situation from the options below, and get on with your own priorities! (Bookmark this link and come back to it often! I know I do.)
The more often you say no, the easier it gets. Promise ;-)
“As much as it interests me, this is beyond my capacity.”
“I have too much on my plate, I cannot commit to this right now.”
“Thank you for your confidence in approaching me with this matter, but I don’t have the capacity to help at this time.”
“No, I am not able to do that.”
“This time does not work for me. Let’s connect at another time.”
“This opportunity sounds wonderful, but no thank you.”
“No.” (a complete sentence)
“That sounds nice, but I am not available.”
“I’m honored that you asked me, but I cannot do it.”
“I’m sorry but I can't help you at this time.”
“I’m not available at the moment, maybe next time!”
“Unfortunately, this is not something I can do right now.”
“No, thank you.”
“Thanks for thinking of me, but it’s a no for me.”
“Thank you for the opportunity, however, I must decline at this time.”
“I just can’t right now. My plate is overloaded as it is.”
“After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.”
“Thank you for considering us working together. I’ve examined the project and my current workload and I don’t think it is a good fit for right now. I’d love to explore working together on a future project.”
“This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].”
“Something has come up and I won’t be able to.”
“I can recommend someone to help you.”
“I know that you will do a great job yourself.”
Try the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach – You can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization—but add that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. (Only say this if it’s true, as people can sense insincerity.)
“I’m long on tasks and short on time. I need to revisit this in a few months.”
“I will give you a referral to someone who can help you because I am unable at this time.”
“I want to do my best work, and I cannot do that at this time as I am over-extended.”
“I know I said yes, but I hadn’t considered the other things I have going on. I can’t add anything else.”
“This sounds like a great project. I can’t jump in right now, but please keep me in mind for next time!”
On saying no to those who are expecting you to work for free, or to do work beyond what was agreed upon:
“This sounds like a wonderful idea. If you’re interested in one of my packages, we can set up a call to discuss. If you’re looking for free resources, I have a great [fill in the blank] that can get you started.”
“I love that idea, and would be more than happy to help implement it. Our contract includes [scope of work], would you like to add [new ask] at an additional rate? If so, I’ll send over a quote so we can move forward.”
“Your new business idea sounds amazing. I wish I could help, but I just don’t have time available to work for free right now. I’ll be cheering you on as I watch you grow.”
“Thanks for your interest in working together. I’m sure your new [product/service] will be as amazing as you say it will be! I’d would be happy to help you [insert task], but would have to charge. I can’t work in exchange for equity at this time.”
“Thanks for reaching out. Out of respect for my paying clients, I won’t be able to give you detailed advice here, but here’s the link to my free resources.”
“Thanks for reaching out. I typically charge for this kind of [advice/service], so I’m unable to answer this via DM/email, but here’s the link where you can book a consultation.”
“Thanks so much for the invite, I appreciate you thinking of me. Are you able to confirm this is a paid opportunity?”
“Thanks so much for inviting me. Unfortunately I’m unable to take on unpaid projects at the moment, but I’ll let you know if that changes.”
[Declining a request for a call with you] “My schedule has been crazy lately, so email is more convenient for me at the moment. Would you mind if we keep the discussion going here?”
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” - Warren Buffett
Do This Now...
My final tip would be to put prominently-placed post-its displaying any of the following prompts that strike a chord with you. They should pose as a reminder any time you're on the fence about saying yes or no to something!
If it’s not a HELL YES then it’s a no.
Does this directly support the life I’m trying to create for myself? Y/N
Get rid of everything that stands in the way of your health, wealth, and happiness.
Do you have any other ways to say no? If so, let me know below and I'll add it to the list.