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Six Steps To Gracefully Say No And Not Feel Guilty

Win your time back with these tactful steps.

Six Steps To Gracefully Say No And Not Feel Guilty
[Photo: Flickr user Petras Gagilas]

Take one look at my calendar and you can tell it’s been a busy year. I’ve had more blind reach-outs come my way than ever before. Some write because there are job openings on my team and they want to know more before applying. Others write after reading a piece of mine online that resonated. Still others are from folks who have seen me speak at conferences and want my feedback on something they’re building.

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At first, I said yes to everything. Yes, I’ll help you find a job! Yes, I’ll give you product feedback! Yes, I’ll grab coffee and tell you about my career path! This was in part because I remember being in the other person’s shoes (writing to someone whose work I admired, hoping to catch a little more wisdom by meeting them in person), and in part because I really love meeting new people, I found it hard to say no.

But after a while I realized that saying yes to everything wasn’t scalable (or, I had to admit, even very fun). All my yesses to strangers or friends of friends meant I was busy all the time. I saw my boyfriend less. I called home less frequently. I missed team outings. I had to say no to things I really wanted to say yes to, because I’d said yes to things I wasn’t certain I could say no to.

Worse still, when I took a hard look at the aftermath of those meetings, nine times out of 10 I never saw the person again. Only rarely did a coffee date turned into a friendship or creative collaboration. And because those relationships hardly lasted beyond a thank-you email, it was hard to know whether I’d actually made a positive impact in that person’s career. The ROI on my time was not looking good.

When my calendar got so crammed I started to schedule breakfast dates, I decided enough was enough: it was time to scale back.

Here’s how you can start to gracefully say no so you can balance your time, be your best self with the ones you love most, and still help the ones you don’t know well yet:

1. Default to No.


The is the easiest and most important step to winning time back from blind email intros. Your default answer must be no. This doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind about meeting a person or taking a call with them, but it does mean that you should have a very good reason for doing so. When you default to no, you only spend time meeting people you are 100% sure you can help and have a positive relationship with.

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Related: Why A Week Of Saying No Wasn’t That Hard

2. . . . Even if the invite is coming from a friend of a friend.

Emails that come from a friend of a friend are no exception to the first rule of defaulting to no. You must say no to one-on-ones–even if they are referrals from your network.

“Our mutual friend X said I should reach out because we both work at startups. Would love to chat. Drinks this week?”

Done right, emails like this one can be declined without ruining your friendship. First, your mutual friend should know better than to forget to employ the double opt-in, but because she is your friend, you should let it go. (If it happens too frequently, send her that link.)

Since it is a friend of a friend, you should probably respond to their email, but take note: That is your only responsibility.

Commit to a response, not a meeting.

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You can suggest a low-impact alternative (how about we go to a meetup that I’m already planning on attending?), or gracefully decline the meeting entirely. More on both options below.

3. Find alternative mini yesses that can still help the other person.

Some people suggest turning a proposed hourlong coffee break into a 15-minute phone call. This is a good first step to getting to no, but still more work than you may have bargained for. That 15 minutes doesn’t factor in the time spent coordinating calendars to schedule a time that works for everyone, the fact that it will likely interrupt you during the workday, that you may need to find a quiet place in a busy office, etc.

A better way? Take three questions via email. Explain that this can help them get off the ground without having to wait for your schedule to clear up. If the person reaching out is serious about getting your perspective (and many people, it turns out, are not), she will send you three thoughtful questions via email. You can answer those at your leisure (say, during your onerous commute), and can also work as a template for future responses of that ilk. It turns out a lot of people have the same questions. I save many advice-giving emails into a Gmail folder where I can copy, paste, and modify as needed. These can also become FAQs for your website if need be.

If the person sending you a coffee date request is local, you can also offer an alternative location and suggest meeting at a meetup or industry event you’re already planning on attending. This eliminates the back and forth of calendar planning, and still gives the advice asker opportunity for face time.

4. Learn to say no with grace.

No matter how you slice it, a no is a no. So how do you say it gracefully, without burning any bridges? You need a quick sign off that thanks and acknowledges the other party’s interest, respectfully declines, and offers an alternative way to help. Try this sample script:

Thank you so much for thinking of me. I’m flattered that you thought of me for X project/opportunity/meeting. Unfortunately I’ve had to really limit my commitments this month, so I’m going to have to pass at the moment. That said, you might find X resource helpful if you haven’t consulted it already. Best of luck, and thanks again for reaching out.

5. Know when to make an exception and say Yes.

For every handful of blind reach-outs you are sure to gracefully decline, there will be one or two that merit further consideration. Establish ahead of time what you personally believe to be worth making an exception for. What do you hope to gain from talking to X or working on X side project with X? What will you give back? Is the proposed opportunity the right way to do it? Is now the right time to take this on?

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Do a quick gut check on why you are considering saying yes. If it’s sudden free time or a social obligation, default back to no. If the opportunity aligns with your values and goals, it may be worth further inspection.


Remember to check your bandwidth and respect what it takes for you to be at your best, personally and professionally.

6. Enjoy the time you get back thoughtfully.

Remember all the things you weren’t able to take on because you were too busy giving out free advice? Take one of those on. For me, the more I cut back on meetings, the more I’m able to scale my knowledge through writing articles like these, and taking on speaking engagements I believe will be impactful. It also means freeing my calendar to connect more regularly with loved ones, to be more spontaneous, and to make life just a little more enjoyable. Given the opportunity, think about what will you do with the time you’ve regained, and how can you use it to make your life more meaningful. Good luck.

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About the author

Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., Newsweek, and HuffPost. She currently manages a team of researchers at Pinterest, in addition to leading a company-wide mentorship program

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