Ask Marissa: How Do I Say ‘No’ Without Disappointing Anyone?
I don't like disappointing people and I have a hard time saying “no.” But this often also means that I am stretched too thin because I am putting myself in a position where there is either too much on my plate or I have agreed to help in areas that I can’t actually succeed in (either because it is outside my skillset or because of circumstances outside of my control). When I do say “no,” I feel disappointed in myself for not even trying. I don’t want my teammates to think that they can’t ask for my help, but I also don’t want to be taken advantage of. How do I say “no” without offending and disappointing my colleagues?
There’s a saying in the professional circles I’m in: if you need something done, ask a busy person.
Excellence attracts attention. If you build a habit of doing things well, other people often notice and will ask you to share your skills and help them. This compounds and competes with your everyday responsibilities, resulting in overwhelm.
I’ll share how I say no in a moment, but first, I’m wondering something. You used the word “disappointment” to describe how you think others react to you when you say no, and again to describe how you feel about yourself when you say no.
Why would the act of saying no cause you to feel disappointed with yourself? Why would disappointing these individuals be harmful to you? Pursuing the answers to these questions is difficult, but it will give you the keys to solving this long-term.
Some sensitive relationships, like parents or mentors, have a much deeper emotional attachment by nature. We’re wired to seek our parents’ love and approval because for our formative years they provided for us. We want to earn our mentors’ respect and pride, and it can sometimes crush us when we can’t overdeliver as we usually would. I deeply understand the challenge in saying no to these individuals.
Other relationships aren’t as sensitive. Of course, you want the respect of your colleagues and friends, but prioritizing interpersonal relationships over your own ability to perform can harm your career.
I believe there’s a way to protect yourself from overwhelm and maintain a good relationship with your colleagues. It comes down to your tone and how you respond to the request.
Have you ever taken an improv class? There’s a classic game in which you’re doing a group task (e.g. creating a commercial for a fake product, pitching a new business) and can’t say “no” to someone’s idea, but instead must say “yes, and,” with a response that builds on the idea.
This game is a great way to practice creatively reframing others’ ideas in a way that supports an overall narrative. Instead of simply saying, “no,” and shutting someone down, you add your idea and channel their energy in a different direction.
Here are some of my favorite ways to do this in a business setting. Not all of these are literal “yes, and” responses, but they all feel far more constructive (and less confrontational) than a simple “no.”
1. Cite higher-priority items.
If you want to help: “I’d love to help on this, but I’ve got a major deadline this week that I’m cranking on. Can I plug into this next Tuesday?”
When I use this language, the answer is commonly yes. When it isn’t, two great things usually happen:
The new request is typically more important than my existing project deadline, which gives me ammunition to push back that deadline
The person asks someone else to help, which frees me of the obligation.
If you don’t want to help: “This sounds interesting, and I see the value in doing this. Unfortunately, I’ve got to focus on [core project] and don’t have the bandwidth this project deserves. What if you try [suggest different strategy]?”
With this, the goal is to recommend an alternative strategy for the person to meet their objective — ideally, one that doesn’t include you. You might recommend consulting another team member with expertise in that area, or working with a contractor, or having a conversation with the project lead about getting more support.
2. Reframe the request.
Adjust the scope: “That sounds interesting. I don’t have the bandwidth to create the entire marketing sequence for this launch, but I can definitely outline the steps with the major objective for each. I bet Gina on the comms team can whip the rest out in no time. When do you need this?”
With this, you “yes and” by helping, but narrow the scope so that it’s more manageable. If you use this strategy, be prepared to give suggestions on how they can achieve their desired result on the remainder of the work.
Adjust the timing: Model the language from No. 1 above to see if you can work on the project at a time more convenient to you.
Typically, the deadline someone else gives you isn’t the real deadline. If you use this detail to your advantage and ask for more time on the task than originally requested, be absolutely certain you can deliver on the date you offer.
3. Say no, mean it, avoid over-explaining, and be okay with your priorities.
Some of the ways I say no:
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to manage that. I’ve got too much going on right now to execute this at the level it deserves.”
“Unfortunately not — I won’t be able to take on new projects until _____.”
“Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m unable to help on this one.”
Then, here’s the magic step: pause and count to at least 5. (I do this on an inhalation so that I force myself to remember to breathe.)
Do not make a lame excuse. Do not add unnecessary context unless asked. This damages your credibility and can be interpreted as if you’re apologizing for your behavior (or worse, embarrassed of it).
I’m reminded of sage advice I once heard from Danielle LaPorte: ‘No’ is a complete sentence.
If you have trouble just saying “no,” as I do, try the language above.
Regardless of the path you take, remember this:
1. Everyone is doing the best job they can with the information and resources available to them. That includes you. Negative self-talk when you’re working hard and striving is cruel and unusual punishment.
2. You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to please everyone. Achievers love the recognition that comes with excellence — but perfection doesn’t have to be your universal goal. Do your best as often as you can. It really is that simple.
3. View failure as an opportunity to grow. If you say no to a colleague, and for some reason it doesn't work out favorably, how will you apply the insights you learned from this experience in the future to produce a more successful result? The only failure is when you put in the work and don’t learn anything.
Saying no is difficult, but with practice, you’ll see how liberating it can feel.