The Art of Saying No

I was inspired this morning to write this post after a friend of mine noted that she needed some help knowing how to say no without sounding like a jerk. (It should be noted that this friend is never a jerk.) So, first, I’m here to tell you that you can try your hardest, but some people may always think you’re just being a jerk when you say no. This advice does not pertain to your interactions with those people. This advise is for the situation when someone will willingly accept your “no,” and it won’t hurt your working relationship (or friendship, even.)

Usually, most of my closest colleagues will start out asking their favor with a variation of, “Now, you can totally say no to this…” which makes me almost always say yes. Know what I mean? They gave me the out right away, I can’t really then take it!

But, let’s face it. I’m pretty sure if you are reading this, you are also feeling slightly or very much overwhelmed all of the time like me. You’re involved in a whole lot of things on campus and you really love most of them, but if anyone asks one more thing of you, you might break. Sound familiar?

You know you have a colleague who always throws his or her heart into something and really gives all of their effort and they are involved in everything on campus. You are on eighteen billion things together. They ask you to be on an ad hoc committee, you blink. When will you have time? But, you really like this person. You have a choice. Either A) Suck it up and hope they help with the work B) Admit you are just too overworked to really put enough effort in.

So, my general advice, in no particular order, in regards to the art of saying no:

1. Say no to the things that others can do just as well as you. If you are not the best to represent your department, say no and offer another’s name.

2. Say no to the things that are not worth your time. How do you decide this? Well, will this look good on your resume? Will it help you in your current position? Could you already do this kind of thing in your sleep?

3. Say not now. If you’d love to help your friend out, but it needs to wait until your slow time of the semester? Say that.

4. Say no to the things your gut tells you aren’t worth it. This means it not only isn’t worth your time, but maybe your entire organization shouldn’t be pursuing this project or this software, for example. Don’t bother. But be honest why.

5. Say no when you think your opinion won’t be valued anyway. You know we’ve all been asked to do something like this. You got put on as a representative of blah blah blah but no one thinks you know what you’re talking about. No thanks.

And, about that not sounding like a jerk? Some thoughts.

  • Offer up a substitute you. Whether at your institution or not, depending on the project. Someone wants you to read a tenure document? Offer a better alternative or someone you know enjoys doing that.
  • Explain that this doesn’t really fit into your schedule right now/your career goals. Asked to do a presentation with a friend on a topic you are So. Over? Explain that you’ve moved in another direction and wish them well.
  • Offer up a time when you could be free to contribute if you’re just too busy NOW.
  • Start with, “I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but I just can’t think about that now.” Plain and simple, yes?


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