There’s a reason why "no" is one of first words we learn to say. Life never fails to throw us offers and opportunities that are worth turning down.
As we grow up, it’s no longer the suggestion that we finish our broccoli that we're most hard-pressed to reject—it’s the requests to do more work and the dubious job offers that we have to find ways of declining politely. Hence the raft of advice out there for professionals looking for graceful ways to bow out of everything from hiring processes and time-consuming assignments to helping coworkers and "voluntary" extracurriculars.
But while much of that advice is sound, you don't actually need a separate strategy for every one of these situations in your career; toting around a mental encyclopedia of "noes" to whip out for each new occasion just isn't practical. Instead, you just have to master these three types of "no," then choose which one to deploy depending on the context and the strength (or weakness) of your interest.
A couple weeks ago I got a Facebook invitation to an art exhibition whose stated aim was to:
[consider] the many ways in which artists and artworks address contradictions in day-to-day reality, whether in an explicitly political register or in more subtle, even satirical, modes that acknowledge an uneasy complicity with the dominant order.
Now, it may very well be an outstanding show, but I didn't have any trouble deciding whether the invitation was for me: It was a "hard no."
Sometimes your career will present you with similarly clear-cut decisions, where you know your answer is a definite "no thanks" right off the bat. In those cases, many of us have trouble being as categorical in our refusals as we should be, worried that we’ll burn bridges, anger a boss, or hurt our reputations.
"Saying ‘no’ is not something that comes naturally to the majority of people," the social psychologist Susan Newman told Fast Company last year. From an early age, we learn to say "yes" so regularly that it becomes a nearly reflexive response for many adults—as does the habit of making ourselves seem more open to something than we actually are.
But as Newman sees it, "The fallout from a ‘no’ is rarely as bad as you think it will be."
In professional situations, there are two key things to bear in mind when you’re sure you're not interested and don’t envision your position ever changing. First, it isn’t personal. Just as that art exhibition will be a great experience for a different kind of person, the offer to invest in Startup A or to interview for a job at Company B aren’t fundamentally bad—they just aren’t right for you.
And second, bowing out early and clearly does the offerer a favor. By making it apparent that you aren’t interested (instead of giving a wishy washy insincere "maybe"), the person asking for your participation is free to go elsewhere with their offer and find someone more likely to accept it. Your rejection might even help them refocus their search.
Here's a perfect example: A reader of career expert Alison Green’s Ask A Manager blog wrote in to ask how to politely decline a promotion:
I really don’t want a leadership position. I am happy with what I’m doing now, and the leadership roles all seem to come with an enormous amount of stress . . . I don’t want to buy into the more-more-more and sacrifice my happiness, my comfort, and time with my family for a bigger paycheck and more responsibilities.
A "hard no" if ever there was one.
"It sounds like you need to be more direct," Green wisely counseled, proposing a response like this:
I really appreciate your confidence in me and your push for me to move up, but I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’m really happy with what I’m doing currently. I don’t want to move into management; I have huge respect for people who do, but it’s just not me.
Notice that last line, where there’s no whiff of criticism for either the offer or the offerer: "It’s just not me."
What if you’re leaning against a proposition but might consider doing something short of what’s being asked of you, but you need to hear more before deciding? This type of situation may be more common in our careers, and it’s probably the bigger culprit in our tendency to wind up agreeing to things we shouldn’t.
You don’t just want to show that you’re on the fence. The key to delivering an effective "soft no" is to convey the reasons for your skepticism and explain what information you’ll need to give a firmer answer.
Back in 1997, the consultant William R. Daniels offered straightforward advice on converting a probable "no" into a possible "yes" contingent on more information. "If I'm going to get involved," he told a client who’d asked to expand a training series Daniels had run that had been a big hit, "I need to understand more about the project."
If that sounds open-ended, it was, but it accomplished two things really succinctly: It let Daniels’s client know he wasn't a sure bet—he didn't lead them on or sound any false notes of feigned enthusiasm. But, second, it gave his client a chance to pitch him on the specifics of the new initiative, rather than to try winning him over based on prior experience.
Daniels showed polite hesitance, avoided anything personal, and made clear what he'd need to know in order to make a final call.
Sometimes we say "yes" to something that’s a bad match for us now but might’ve been a good one had we only held out. And while it’s true that some (or maybe even most) offers have expiration dates, there can be ways to extend or even renew them later on.
In these cases, briefly explain what prevents you from accepting the opportunity right now but why it interests you all the same. Then suggest terms for revisiting it later, and see if that’ll work for the other party.
This type of response is handy because it reflects the big role that timing plays in our lives and careers (so handy, in fact, that LinkedIn has a canned auto-response for replying to recruiters’ messages: "Thanks for reaching out. This isn't a good fit for me now, but let's keep in touch."). Our jobs tend to subtly prod us in the opposite direction, though, into seeing opportunities in black or white—they’re there until they’re not.
"Deadlines can be a good thing," The Muse’s Joy C. Lin recently explained. "They help you gauge whether you’re moving in the right direction and keep you motivated. But forcing yourself to stick to a schedule when it doesn’t make sense can be ineffective, and even hold you back."
You can’t schedule you entire career in advance, even though some offers and opportunities may compel you to (deliberately or otherwise). Haste can be more than just paralyzing, though, as Lin points out. It can lead us down blind alleys—or toward regrettable "yeses."
Whereas the worst thing that can happen when you ask to wait and decide later? Someone gives you a "hard no" and moves on—then so do you. No hard feelings.