How to Say No — Professionally

Have you ever had a wonderful opportunity land right into your lap? A really great one that could shoot you forward in your career? 

And you had to say no? 

Maybe it was because of timing. Maybe it was because of previous commitments. For whatever reason, that opportunity just couldn’t line up with your goals.

That’s what I had to do this past week. And I want to show you how you can also say no — professionally. 

If you haven’t experienced this circumstance yet, you’re going to. And it’s important to know how to best handle it and deal with it before you get there.

If you decide what you’re going to do in a particular environment before you reach it, you’re more likely to succeed when you do.

 That’s a lesson that my mom taught me growing up and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s always proven true. 

For the past month and a half, I’ve been meeting up with a business coach. We ran into each other at my current job and immediately hit it off. We started meeting up once a week, talking about career aspirations and what values are important to us in the workplace. We found that our beliefs lined up really well, and I was excited to see where this could lead.

As the meetings progressed, I read several books about careers and how the little things make a huge difference. I talked with one of my business coach’s supervisors and heard a little more about his story and how he ended up where he was in this company. 

The longer I met up with my business coach, the more I learned. And with each meeting, the more I realized that her company was not the right one for me.

Don’t get me wrong: it was a pretty good company. But as I researched it and she told me more about it, I realized that where I want to go in my career doesn’t line up with this company’s aspirations. I have nothing against that company; it just wasn’t for me. 

So on a phone call this past week, I kindly told my business coach that I was not interested.

I had to say no — professionally. 

It went really well. She was understanding — though reasonably disappointed — and kind. She told me if ever I needed anything to simply reach out. I hung up the phone feeling relieved and like I had dodged a bullet. 

The only reason it went so well is that I took what I’ve learned from being in Praxis these past few months and applied it to the situation. I’ve had to give feedback to my fellow Praxians every week and learn how to communicate better. Because of that, I was able to handle it. 

Here are a couple of tips for you when you have to say no — professionally. 

Wrap it up in a bow of compliments so it’s a softer blow. This is a concept I mentioned in a YouTube video I made about how to give constructive criticism (you can watch that here). Basically, it means if you need to give an honest opinion on something that isn’t good or needs work, make sure that you point what’s good about it first. Start off with saying why it’s a good thing — “I really love what your company is doing and I think this opportunity you’re offering is an incredible one” — then be honest about why you can’t take it (which is the next point). 

Be honest. If you like the company, say that. Ever notice when someone is lavishing compliments on you and you can just tell that they’re faking it? Remember that when you’re in this situation: false compliments and a super cheery demeanor are smoke screens, and people see right through them. Tell the truth about why you can’t take on that opportunity. If it’s one that you like, explain why you like it but why it doesn’t work for you right now. End on a high note, linking back to a compliment — “So while this opportunity isn’t right for me, I’m excited to see where your company moves with it and who you impact with your work.” 

Stick with what you’ve already committed to. This is just good life advice but it’s especially important and true in the professional world. If you have already told someone you’re going to commit to meeting with them, you can’t cancel it simply because someone asks you to help with another project. Of course, you should be doing your best to coordinate your opportunities. But sometimes they cross over in schedule and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

If you’re afraid to say no… don’t be. I feel bad when my manager asks me to cover a shift and I have to say no. I worry that he won’t ask me to cover another one. It’s not because I don’t want the hours or I’m not eager to work; it’s only when I’ve made other plans that can’t be canceled.

Being afraid to say no is normal, but it’s unfounded. Managers especially understand that you’re not 100% available all the time. They aren’t expecting you to be on the edge of your seat, the first one to jump forward and take a shift when asked. Not that it’s bad to be that way; on the contrary, that can-do attitude is attractive in the workplace. Yet at the same time, you have to know your own limits and be willing to say no. 

Everyone needs to learn to say no. Life is full of nos. You’re going to run into it in the professional world as much as anywhere else. So go ahead and learn how to do it well. 

Have you ever had to say no to a professional opportunity? How did you say it? How did it go? I want to hear some of your stories on this; leave them in the comments below. Also, if you have any additional tips, let me know!

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