How to Say No

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

How do you kindly, yet firmly, attempt to say that no, you can’t even spare one hour to meet to talk about anything beyond what you’ve already committed to? I’m an artist and a teacher and I want to help everyone on their thing but even the commitments I already have are flagging. How can I let people know that I want to help, but I can’t? Give me specific words and sentences that I could say. The old adage of “I’m busy” sounds so generic and also really not firm enough to explain the extent of why it’s not because I don’t like him/her, but I’m seriously suffering on my own stuff already and can’t help them.

Sincerely,
Helpful but Can’t Help

Dear Helpful but Can’t Help,

In an age when everyone is “busy” all the time, it is difficult to stand out. Luckily, you don’t need to stand out or impress upon people how busy you are or explain anything, you simply need to say no.

The truth here is on your side, so use it. You ask for specific words. They are: “Unfortunately, I’m already booked that day/week/month/for the semester” or “Unfortunately, I’m not taking on anything new right now.”* If you want to, you could start with “I wish I could help, you know how much I respect your work/believe in this cause/enjoy your company,” but only say that if it’s true. Otherwise, just the polite but firm “no” will suffice.

The key after you’ve delivered the above is to stick with it. If the request isn’t for a specific time and the person insists it would “only be an hour,” your response is “I understand that, but I’m simply not taking on any new commitments right now, of any size.” Repeat as necessary.

If there is some direction, feedback, or resources that could be useful to them that you can provide off the top of your head, go ahead and offer it up. Perhaps you have colleagues or friends who would be interested and available and can direct requests their way.

What you do not need to do is explain your schedule or lay out the commitments you already have. To do so communicates guilt, and people know that guilt is a crack in the armor of “no.”

This sensible Midwesterner senses that you do, in fact, feel guilty about not being able to find 29 hours in a day in order to do more. It’s a common ailment, particularly among women. Don’t fall for it. Your schedule is yours to make, and you’re making appointments and commitments as you see fit, that work for you, your like, and your career; do not feel guilty about that.

* I suppose many people, Midwesterners in particular, would start off with “I’m sorry.” I greatly prefer “Unfortunately” because it is less specific. It acknowledges that the answer isn’t what the person wants to hear, without being an outright apology. Of course, there may be situations in which you are truly sorry – requests from close friends or favorite students, for example – but be careful the thin edge of the wedge that any sense of guilt creates!

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