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How to say ‘no’ without looking or feeling like a jerk

These four techniques allow you to frame “no” so that it’s a positive experience for everyone involved.

How to say ‘no’ without looking or feeling like a jerk
[Photo: Zan/Unsplash]

It doesn’t always feel good to say “no,” even when we don’t want to say “yes.” According to a report published by Psychology Today, we’re hardwired to avoid conflict, and we don’t like to disappoint others. It can be rewarding to help others, and saying “yes” is part of it.

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“The only time it feels good to say ‘no’ is when you’re saving your small child from touching something hot,” says Ivan Misner, founder of BNI, a business networking organization, and author of Who’s in Your Room: The Secret to Creating Your Best Life.

Saying “no,” though, is necessary, for many reasons. But if you’re careful, it’s possible to decline an opportunity without feeling—or looking—bad. Misner shares four ways to frame your “no” so that it’s a positive experience for everyone involved:

You might let them down

One of Misner’s favorite ways to say “no” is to tell the person he’s afraid if he said “yes,” he’d let them down. “You use the word ‘yes’ but you say ‘no,'” he says. “I’ve used that for years, and it’s very effective. Be honest why.”

It could be that you don’t have the bandwidth and you’re overloaded. Perhaps the request isn’t within your expertise. Or maybe it’s not something you’re passionate about. “Whatever the reason, the appropriate bottom line is that you’re a friend and you’re afraid you’d let them down,” says Misner. “You don’t want to disappoint them.”

You know someone more qualified

If the request isn’t in your wheelhouse or if you aren’t interested in doing it, referring the person to someone more qualified can be a great resolution.

“You can say ‘no’ and add, ‘However, I know somebody who loves what you’re talking about. Let me refer you to them,'” says Misner. “Make sure the referral is legitimate and the other person would welcome the connection. You show that you really want to help them.”

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You simply don’t do that

Sometimes someone might ask you to do something that isn’t within your mission or practices. You can decline the request by saying you don’t do that.

“This begins by knowing your own personal or professional mission,” says Misner. “I do this all the time by telling people that my mission is to do X and as interesting as their idea is, it’s not something that fits with what I do.”

For example, when Misner launched BNI, someone suggested that he teach people how to sell. “I would respond by saying, ‘That’s a great mission. It’s just not our mission. We don’t do that. Other organizations are experts at sales,'” he says. “When you explain it like that, people get it. It’s better than burning bridges and saying, ‘Hell no.'”

You have another idea

If you are unable to do something that you’re being asked to do, offer the person something else instead. “I am always having people ask me to send some communication out to my entire mailing list, and the answer is always ‘no,'” says Misner. “However, with people I know and trust, I propose something else, such as posting it on my social media instead. That generally works just as well to maintain the relationship.”

Whatever you say, don’t “Seinfeld it”

Sometimes being uncomfortable can make you avoid saying “no,” but avoidance wastes everyone’s time and eventually negatively impacts your reputation.

“We’ve all seen those episodes of Seinfield where one of the characters goes off on some crazy subterfuge or complicated ruse that ends up getting them in more trouble than if they had just been candid in the first place,” says Misner. “Be polite but be honest and be direct. If you want to maintain relationships with people and not burn bridges, you have to learn how to say ‘no’ in a meaningful and tactful way.”

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However, don’t become addicted to “no,” because that won’t bring you joy either, adds Misner. “Look for opportunities to help people and say ‘yes,'” he says. “Be clear in your mind whether something fits into your mission or whether it’s just a distraction. I have said ‘no’ gently and had someone thank me.”

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