“Sorry, I’d help you if I could, but I’m tied up doing this other thing for someone else.” It’s a common way to beg off new requests, but it may have the unintended consequence of slighting the asker. There’s no doubt you have legitimate reasons for not being available. But there’s still the risk that you’ll make your boss or coworker feel like a low priority when you pass the buck in the process of telling them “no” or “not right now.”
Here’s how to decline an impromptu request without making it personal, bruising egos, or hinting that someone or something just isn’t that important.
Step 1: Stop and listen
When someone asks, “Do you have a minute?” at work, don’t rush past or just keep your head down. Stop, look them directly in the eye, and focus on the conversation. The tendency is to say, “Sorry, I’m in the middle of something” or (staring at the computer screen), “Think it can wait?” But a true test of leadership–at every level of the workforce–is to make time for others even when it isn’t convenient.
So when someone has the courage to reach out to you and ask for a moment of your time, take it as an opportunity to influence and inspire. Give them the time of day–and your full attention.
Step 2: Don’t start with an excuse or play favorites
Whatever you do, resist the urge to let them know you’re working on a project for someone else, even if it happens to be true. Say a customer calls you with a request. Often the first thought that comes to mind is, “I’m super busy with another task, so I can’t get to yours for a while.” Keep that thought to yourself.
Same goes if your boss pops into your office and asks, “Do you have a minute? I’d like to discuss a new project with you.” You might feel overwhelmed with work at that moment, but you’re likely to create resentment if you reply, “Listen, I’m deep into this other project and really have to be out of here by 5:00 today.”
Playing favorites is no better than giving excuses. It’s totally understandable why you’d want to prioritize requests from senior leaders over those of your peers or more junior colleagues. But handling requests for your time based strictly on others’ ranks isn’t a smart idea, either. For example, a manager running from one meeting to another might reply to a subordinate who’s asked for a moment of her time with, “I’ve got a meeting with our VP” or, “Catch me later, I’m heading out to a customer meeting.” What she’s really saying is, “There are more important people than you.”
Team leaders need to show respect not only to the people above them but to those they manage. If a team member sticks his head into your office and asks, “Do you have a minute?” and you’re running to the CEO’s office, say, “Yes, give me an hour and I’ll be back in my office” or, “How about tomorrow morning?”
Step 3: Indicate that you’re supportive (or at least intrigued)
This isn’t the same thing as committing to help, right now or even ever. It’s just a matter of indicating that you’re open to offering support, including if you have to say “no” to this particular request in this particular instance. Your first response should be, “I’d be pleased to help you” or even just, “Tell me more.”
If you’re pressed for time, you might say, “This sounds exciting. Can we meet tomorrow to go over the details?” Show that you’re there to help but need a little more information to decide exactly how. You might realize after sitting down to discuss things later that you’re not the best person to handle the problem. In that case, just make a referral: “I know the perfect person to help with this.”
Then again, you may learn more about the request and decide that you do want to help. Should that happen, you need to be as good as your word–no matter whether it was a longstanding commitment or something you agreed to help with off the cuff. Even if another important task crops up, don’t renege on the promise you’ve already made or swap one commitment for another.
These three steps can help you decline unexpected requests for your time and attention without hurting feelings or communicating the wrong thing. But no matter how haywire things might get around the office every now and then, the key is to make everybody feel like No. 1 in your book, not No. 2–even if you can’t lend a hand this time.