How to Say No with Grace and Diplomacy

how to say no with graceIn a recent post, I wrote all about the importance of using the two-letter word: No. It’s not easy, that’s for sure—especially when you’re genuinely interested in something. But when there’s no time, space, or energy for it, NO is the smartest way to go.

For a detailed explanation of why adding the word “no” to your vocabulary is important to ensure you’re aligning your life values with your actual life, (including the risks that come with saying “yes” too often,) read the first article in this two-part series.

If you already have a good handle on why it’s important to say no when you’re spread thin, but have trouble actually using the word, here are four steps on how to say no that won’t offend the person who’s requesting your time or attention.

Create Personal Policies

Lots of businesses, families, cities and organizations have clear rules that you just cannot argue with. The idea with personal policies is to create your own set of rules that support your most important endeavors and align well with your values.

Most stores have store policies posted right by the register so you can see ahead of time the guidelines around what you can return, when, and under which conditions. If you try to request a return without a receipt and receipts are required, most likely you’ll get a “that’s against our policy.” You can talk to the clerk and the store manager, but if it’s the policy of that store, your argument won’t get very far.

But in our personal lives, we often don’t even know our own rules, therefore we end up bending what might be our core values and important priorities. If privacy and personal space is a value for you, it wouldn’t work out well for you if your husband invites house guests to stay with you two weeks out of every month. If you had a policy that you were only able to accommodate houseguests for three days at a time, once a month, it would be understood as a rule. No questions asked.

Some people confuse personal policies with being a “nay sayer.” But the truth is:

  • When you say yes to something, what are you going to have to say no to?
  • When you say no to something, what is it that you are now open to say yes to?

Action Plan Step 1: Make a list of your values in each of these categories:

  • Work
  • Relationships
  • Lifestyle
  • Health
  • Finances
  • Purpose in life

Action Plan Step 2: Create a policy around each of your values. For example, if your value in relationships is to spend more time with your kids and you determine that picking them up from school each day is the most important thing you can do, your policy may be that you do not schedule any meetings between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m.

Make Your Policies Known

Just like a store has their policy posted everywhere—on your receipt, at the register, on signs—you can also make your policies known up front.

Talk to your colleagues, boss and clients and clue them in on your new personal rules. If everyone knows your policy ahead of time, it’ll be easier to adhere to it. Send a quick email letting your team know that you are blacking out the 2:30 to 3:30 hour on your calendar and why. Then block it out on your Outlook calendar so everyone can see that you are busy at this time. If you already have standing meetings scheduled at this time, shift them to a new time slot.

Explain Your Limitations

A common request is of time, which is a tricky and subjective currency. Many people will want your help and attention, where you might not be willing to spend that currency on a particular project or cause. Next time you feel yourself wanting to say no but at risk for saying yes, stop, pause, and articulate your thoughts.

Try this: “I really like this idea, finding the ______ (insert limitation here,) will be my biggest challenge.” For example, “Finding the time will be my biggest challenge” or “Finding the right resource will be my biggest challenge.”

Most of the time, people just need to understand why you’re saying no. Allow them to exercise their muscle of empathy for how much you have on your plate and explain that it’s not for lack of interest, just lack of _____. (time, money, expertise…)

Point Them in the Right Direction

If someone is asking you to teach them something, tell them how you learned. Instead of an outright “no” or spending a big chunk of your time in teaching mode, demonstrate your desire to help them by giving them book recommendations, websites, and other tools that helped you grow in that particular area.

You can also try connecting them with someone in your network that may be better qualified, more willing, and have more time to assist them. This could make for a win-win if you have someone in mind that not only has the expertise and time, but also more interest in helping. Who knows? Their personal policy could be to mentor more rookies starting out in the field.

Saying no doesn’t need to be a negative exchange. If communicated well, it can be an authentic and direct way to convey when you have a limitation on a request that’s come your way.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.


  1. Ernestine on June 24, 2016 at 1:53 am

    How to say NO is an informative article and yet it seemed like it’s geared to someone
    other than me. and I have trouble saying NO to my grandchildren
    14-21 who ask me for money on a regular(monthly) basis.
    Their father, my son, is incarcerated so he has nothing but advice to give and.I am 71 living solely on Social Security
    I feel resentful when I do and guilty when I don’t.I feel resentful because when I ask them for
    help with laundry or grocery shopping or help around the apt. no help is forthcoming.
    What’s your advice to me and other grandparents living and loving like me.?

    • Melissa Eisler on June 24, 2016 at 11:25 am

      Hi Ernestine. Thanks so much for your comment. I don’t have any life experience relevant to your story, unfortunately, since I’m not a grandparent myself. I might recommend incentivizing the kids, saying “yes” to giving them money only on the condition that they will help you with chores. Also, just like I mention in the article, explain your limitations openly. Be transparent with them about your values and budget and hopefully they will find some understanding. I hope that helps and best of luck.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.