“I just can’t say NO.”

How many times have you heard this lament from someone who was stressed, overwhelmed, and overcommitted?   As a fundraiser, relationship manager, and a parent of a three year old, the word NO is a part of my life. I hear it and say it on a daily basis – multiple times a day. Even so, I understand how easy it is to take the word NO personally. It’s hard not to take NO personally, but I can tell you from experience that it very rarely is the end of the conversation.*

NO doesn’t mean “I hate you. Go away. And don’t ever ask me for anything again.” Usually it means not right now, not in that way, not for that particular thing, not with that group of people. That doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Why do people have such a hard time saying no? I have no idea. But we should all feel comfortable saying it more. If someone never says no, it kind of dilutes the power of their yes, doesn’t it?

As a parent, a working person, and someone who has varied interests and passions to keep in balance, I really can’t say yes to everything that comes my way. Sometimes it’s really flattering to be asked, or it might feel like an opportunity that will never come my way again. Sometimes I am afraid someone will be mad at me or disappointed in me if I say no. Or I feel guilty for setting a personal boundary with my time or energy because society tells me I’m supposed to be selfless and giving. But saying yes isn’t the answer. Instead, I’ve learned how to say NO in new ways.


This is my go-to way of saying no, and it works in email and in person. It allows you to say yes right away, decline the thing that was asked of you, and buys you time to say yes to something that feels more aligned with your time, capacity, or interest. Here’s an example:

You:                        Can you bake cupcakes for our bakesale?

Me:                         Yes, I would love to help ensure that our children have the resources necessary to take this extra special field trip. No, I don’t have time to bake cupcakes for this particular bakesale.

Yes, I would love to donate $5 to support the cause.

Come back and ask me later

This works really well for things like buying a table for an event, joining a board or committee, or another volunteer role. Instead of just saying no, I tell them that I would love to do but could they ask me again in a specific amount of time (week, month, year). I can tell you that the person who listens, makes a note of your timeframe, and has the follow through to ask you again is probably someone you want to have in your life.

You: Will you serve on the board for this AMAZING SAVE THE WORLD NONPROFIT?

Me:  I would love to serve on the board, but I can’t make a commitment right now. Can you come back and ask me again in a year?

Say no to whole categories of things

You can set boundaries around whole categories of things, like traveling on Mondays or Fridays.  I love the way, Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, talks about just avoiding conferences all together. I told my boss that I wasn’t going to travel for a year after my son was born. This makes your NO much less personal.  It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you, it’s just that I don’t do calls or meetings between 4:30pm and 7pm.  You aren’t saying no to the person, you are saying no to the thing they asked. Maybe they will then ask you something else. Usually they won’t.

You:            There’s a great networking event tonight. Want to join me?

Me:            WOW, thanks so much for thinking about me! I love networking! But I’m not doing evening events until my kids are a little older. Let me know if there is a breakfast or a lunch and I’ve love to join you.

Suggest someone else. Busy times, whether because of parenting or other life changes, are opportunities to show some love to your network, your mentees, or your colleagues. I wish I could help you with that, but I just don’t have the bandwith right now. Have you thought about reaching out to Mary? She’d be great for this kind of project.

You:             Will you speak at this AMAZING PROFESSIONAL OPPORTUNITY CONFERENCE?

Me:            What an honor to be asked! I wish I could make it. Have you thought about asking Mary? She’d be terrific for this sort of thing.  

Set a high bar for your time. I love networking and mentoring meetings. I could just eat them up. But with two kids, work travel, and the stresses of life right now, I have to limit how many of them I can do. When someone asks me if I’d be willing to talk to them about their job search or post-college plans, I usually say one of the following things:

  • Send me a resume and a list of the organizations you are interested in working with and I’d be happy to set up a time to discuss.
  • Send me a list of your questions ahead of time.
  • I can only do a call at 6am, so let me know which day next week works for you. (This works great for graduating college students looking for advice on finding their first job.)

It’s not being snotty. It’s setting a standard for interaction. Plus it’s teaching folks some valuable skills about how to network effectively.

No, thank you. Simple. Elegant. No explanation needed.

* As a survivor of sexual violence and as someone who writes about sexual violence with frequency, let me just clarify something here. In the context of personal, physical space and sex, NO means STOP IMMEDIATELY. Got it? And just a friendly PSA that in sexual situations, the absence of NO does not equal the presence of YES.