The Trick to Saying “No”

Over the last few days, I’ve been inundated with requests for help from clients, almost-clients, and never-will-be-clients. All of them wanted a fast turnaround. All of them have gotten quick responses from me before. And none of them knew that I was in the middle of a project that was sucking up time faster than a Shop-Vac sucks up tacks, a project that demanded lots of focus and came with a built-in tight deadline.

NoI begged off two projects only to get hurt emails back, insisting I help and pointing to some wince-inducing guilt lurking off-stage.

Several years ago I piled on a bad mix of too much paying and non-paying work and ended up slathered in humiliation and unfinished, promised work. Not wanting to do that again, I gathered up my coaching stamina and skills. . .and stayed up till 3 a.m. for three nights doing everything so people would like me. Damn. Personal growth can be a bitch.

Here’s what I learned. (I hate learning while it’s going on; afterwards, it’s always worthwhile. But when i see a learning experience coming on, I cringe.)

–When people ask me to re-write something,  they think it will take 10 minutes. It doesn’t. It takes 3 hours. When I sweat over it for 3 hours and they tell me I missed the deadline, I sigh. When they add “I just spiked your email, you were late,” I stuff down rage.

Lesson learned: When I open the email request, I send back an email that says, “This will take me 3 hours, and I can get to it next week. Is that all right?” The return email says, “I thought it would take 10 minutes, I just want you to glance at it and give me advice,” I reply, “Nope, that’s 3 hours. Next week OK?” The key is to stick to the time YOU know it will take you and define a time you will deliver the finished product. Figure accurately the time when you can get to it. Let the requester decide if that fits their deadline. If they tell you they need it sooner, you can honestly say you are booked. That’s the point where you started.

–In an ideal world, people get their work done before the deadline. In my world, I get requests to look at this “right away.” If I’m jammed up myself, I make up mean thoughts of their inconsiderate selves.  In reality, they aren’t thinking of me at all, they are trying to get something done. Back goes an email, “I’m jammed up right now, I can get to this in three days.” You have to stand up for yourself. Without making up ugly stuff about your colleagues. Just stick to the facts.

Lesson learned: Be honest with yourself first, then your client. That way “no” feels better coming out of your mouth.

If you don’t want to do it, simply say “I can’t take this on right now.” You don’t have to offer more explanation. That’s hard, because we want people to like us and tell us it’s all right. But people are not concerned about what we want, they are concerned about what they want. Which is why they don’t care once you’ve said “no.” It’s amazing how well it works

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who is still learning, and plans on making a life out of learning. You can see her work at

6 thoughts on “The Trick to Saying “No”

  1. Another issue I’ve run into is whose standards come into play. Working in a giant faceless corporation my time scales are a bit different, but I find that many times when I scope a project at 3 months, but the “client” wants it in 3 weeks, we’re disagreeing about what is “good enough”. It would not be very satisfying to rush through every task and always deliver what I know could be far better, but sometimes it works and everybody is “satisfied enough”.

    Most recent example was a request that came through for “usability improvements to application X”. I was thinking through architecture, interaction, and the like, and it was going to take some time. But it turned out that what the “client” really wanted — although he didn’t realize it initially — was moving one function from a menu onto a button instead so you could see it.

    Application X could probably be improved by all that extra work, but as the saying (in the tech world) goes, “there’s always version 2”

  2. I do pet therapy work, and my response to requests from new facilities, etc. has been to build a network of people I can turn to that might be able to fill the needs of those I know I can’t do. Maybe you could network with people who do your kind of work so you have a referral network for those jobs you decide you really don’t want or have time to do, or if people aren’t willing to wait? That way people won’t be so upset when you say no…

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