cropped JHACareerslogo web

The Art Of Just Saying No

The Art Of Just Saying No

From Career Tips, 2011 Volume 4, April 2011


Last month I wrote about how critical it is to focus your search.


This is a time when you may be perceived as having time on your hands, and therefore are called upon to take on a lot of tasks you would be assumed not to have time for if you were working. It is also a time when you desperately need to focus your energies, but can be overwhelmed by all of the things you COULD be doing to move your search forward.


Woman Holding Out Hands
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

One of the most important strategies for creating that focus is learning the art of saying "No."


There are two extremes here. One is the sharp, brusque "NO!" that has others start to view you as being negative, unhelpful or only in it for yourself. This contributes to a poor professional image that can harm you just as much (or more) than having gone ahead and gotten involved.


The other extreme is the excuse-filled "No." This is where you provide all sorts of justifications for why you are saying "No", and they come across as overkill, just a series of excuses rather than valid reasons. And again, this damages your professional reputation.


So how do you navigate between this Scylla and Charybdis? Let me present 3 principles to help you.


1. Give yourself permission to say no.


This sounds obvious, but it's very powerful. I recall a board I had been sitting on since its foundation that was progressively getting less and less interesting, and more demanding (since some of us were much more active than others). Something else came up in my professional life that made it difficult to continue that level of involvement, but I felt guilty about stepping back, particularly since I was one of the founding members.


My natural inclination would have been to simply step back a little bit, take on less, but stay involved to a substantial degree. I instead told the Chair that I needed to step back, and offered the choice for me to contribute as I could (without attending meetings) over the next several months until my term expired, or to resign my seat immediately if they wanted it freed up for someone else to serve.


I can't tell you how liberated I felt leaving that meeting!


2. Listen to your inner voice.


In the instance above, I was progressively getting less excited about our mission (or at least whether we were making meaningful progress towards achieving it). When the outside event came up that prompted me to re-examine my commitment, rather than simply looking at how I could manage the two activities together, I listened to my inner voice. I felt some guilt about stepping back, partly related to having been a founding member, but that inner voice was warning me that this board no longer fed my soul in a meaningful way, so I gave myself permission to say no.


Now to tune your inner voice so you can even hear it, you need to give some serious thought to your goals. Carefully examine them, so that when these choices arise you are able to clearly establish for each initiative how central it is to what you are trying to achieve.


Some can be focused on personal interests and others on professional goals (such as getting that next job), though you will find the most fulfillment when even those are aligned. It's also OK for a few to be not directly leading towards your short term goals if they feed your soul - just make sure they are truly doing that.


3. Like Nancy Reagan admonished, Just Say No.


What I mean by this is to follow the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and avoid lengthy explanations. The more you explain why you can't do something, the more you either:

  • Start to look whiny ("Oh, woe is me, I could help you if only I didn't have all of these other things going on."), or
  • Provide the requester ammunition for a continued discussion on how to change your mind. And going down this road makes it that much more difficult to stick with your "No" and still retain a positive, professional image.


I attended a seminar years ago where a similar principle was applied to apologies, and it was a very powerful concept. ("Watch Your Buts!")


There's a huge difference between a simple reason and an excuse. When you cross the boundary into excuse territory, you both lose credibility and seem less professional.


For example, if someone in another department comes to you for help on a project, and you say "I'm sorry, but I've got three other critical issues I'm working on right now, and I promised my family I wouldn't work late this week because we have friends visiting from out of town, and ..." you've crossed into the land of excuses.


What if instead, you simply said, "I'm sorry, I have critical deadlines this week."?


Now how about a more subtle example of how you might "Just Say No" in a job search?


How many times have you had a discussion with a networking contact, and that person suggested that they send your résumé to HR? This tends to happen a lot, because it's something easy for them to do. However, it generally isn't very helpful me as a job seeker, and it let's the contact off the hook, so they feel less pressure to do anything else for me. What I really want is to get a chance to talk to someone else, ideally someone who is in a position to hire me or to introduce me to the person who could.


So here's how I might deal with that suggestion.


"Jim, I really appreciate that. You know what would be really helpful to me? I would love the chance to talk to someone in the Finance area, so I could start to get a feel for their issues. Do you know anyone you could introduce me to?"


What I've done is deflect the request a bit, without directly saying no. If Jim still wants to take my résumé to HR, that's fine - it's not going to do me any harm. But I've taken the question as an opportunity to lead Jim towards the referrals that will really move me forward.


You can apply this to almost any suggestion Jim might make that you don't believe will be particularly helpful. Don't tell him that it won't be helpful, as that is a criticism that can hurt the relationship and shut down further suggestions. Just deflect it a bit like I did above...


"Jim, thanks for the idea, and I've actually done something along that line already. You know what would really help me move forward..."


Just be sure to put some work into practicing these techniques so that they become natural for you. As one colleague advises regarding job interviews,

"You should have at least 5 hours of role play before your first interview. After all, you don't want the interview for the job you want to be your practice interview!"


I'd love to hear your own techniques for saying "No" professionally, to include in a future issue (anonymously, of course, unless you specifically tell me you would like attribution). Just drop me a note with your suggestions at

Reader's Responses

I got some great additions from readers to the advice I gave in last month's issue, "The Art of Just Saying No,":


"That was a really powerful and meaningful newsletter. My only suggestion for tips to say no is:

Although often so tempting, over-commitment leaves us scattered and without connection or grounding. The minute you take a deep breath, weigh pros and cons and realize there's a doubt, saying 'no' with grace is actually liberating."
Monica Moreland


"As I was reading the article, which provides a good perspective and alternatives that I will put in practice, I remembered the last time when I had to say NO. I didn't have time to prepare, and suddenly a good opportunity was not such. Being cornered and not willing to appear arrogant because of being overqualified (a situation that should have been identified by the other party) I turned the tables. I asked him how he believed the opportunity would help me in my career, and if he thought the company was willing to pay a premium for skills that were not needed at the current opportunity.


Probably the second question was more in line with your first alternative in your article. Even the first question's ending action was in the same bucket. Nevertheless, I guess we agree that it was better for me to say NO without adding that, and better not exposing the recruiter. Good article!"


"It is important to be clear with oneself about why you're saying no--the real reason(s). If it is a professional reason, state it. If it is family-related or personal, I think it is acceptable to say 'No, for personal reasons.' Some ways I say no:

  1. 'No thank you, that committee is not a good match for my skill set. However, Alex has indicated to me that she'd like to be on your committee.'
  2. 'No thank you, my time is fully committed at the moment,' or 'No thank you, my time is fully committed at the moment, but check back in 6 months.'
  3. 'No thank you, I just don't have a strong interest in that position (at this time).'


I try to leave a small opening at the end of the sentence by having them check back or by referring them to someone so that they still view me as being cooperative in some small way. If I leave out that opening, it would be because I prefer not to be asked again."


"Right on! I used to give excuses when I said no, and it always ended up backfiring. I'll remember your article next time I need to say no."


"I recently accepted a volunteer position during my career transition. There must be a balance between what I contribute and my time. I have to retain my sense of self-worth, and real market value $$."


And finally, Bill Gaffney, a career coach and recruiter whom I really respect, caught me on a subtle (but very important) point in my example:"Good piece. However: 'Do you know anyone you could introduce me to?' gives them a chance to say no. Instead say, 'Who do you know?'  No is a complete sentence. Yes means nothing if you can't say no."


Thanks for the critical improvement in my example, Bill - I deserve the wet noodle for that one! Try as much as possible to ask open ended questions rather than ones easily answered Yes or No, particularly in that critical question seeking referrals!


Sign up for Career Tips and receive more articles like this every month!