A Simple Guide to Saying No

Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass
3 min readOct 9, 2013

If you’re like me, you have an itch to say yes to every opportunity. Want to meet over coffee to chat about some new ideas for a start-up? Sure! Want to give a talk about the future of space monkeys? Sign me up! Interested in judging a competition for best ramen noodle art? Yes please!

Saying no can be unpleasant. It can feel like a fully decked out marching band (complete with snare drummers and baton twirlers) showing up in your inbox one day and you choosing instead to rain on their parade. Sometimes it’s a friend asking, and you don’t want to disappoint her. Often, it’s genuinely a very cool opportunity or something you’re really supportive of. You’d like to avoid coming across as someone who’s time is far too valuable for that (ie, one of those people who constantly complains about how busy she is) because in general, you’re touched someone thought of you to begin with.

Alas, at some point, you can’t or won’t choose to prioritize a request. That’s all right. It’s okay to say no. But how?

In some cases, declining is easy because the conflict is obvious. I’m out of town or I have something else going on at that exact same time.

When that’s not the case, and there’s nothing scheduling-wise to prevent you from saying yes, it can be harder. You could just not reply. I suspect most people who don’t reply (guilty as charged here) don’t because saying no in a nice, respectful way takes some crafting, and saying nothing at all is less effort. But then you’re just leaving things hanging, and that feels sloppy.

So, here’s my general strategy for how to say no:

  1. Be honest and direct. A no is a no, and that should be communicated in the first or second sentence and not something that needs to be read between the lines.
  2. Talk about what you are prioritizing instead. It doesn’t have to be detailed, but it should be true. Few things are ever no in a vacuum, so it tends to be about the tradeoffs, and people get that.
  3. If you’re even the slightest bit interested in the opportunity but can’t pursue it at the moment, mention that the no is for right now. In the future, who knows? Don’t prematurely rule out possibilities if you think things might change.

Want some examples?

Too much going on at work: Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend your space monkey conference. November is a busy month for me as I have <a project shipping/a vacation coming up/lots of work obligations>, so I’m trying to minimize time away from the office.

Not a priority: I’m passing on chatting about space monkeys right now as I’m taking on fewer work-related meetings to focus on some personal goals/spending time with family/planning a wedding/running a marathon.

Happy with my current level of involvement in this area: I would love to <attend your space monkey conference/judge a ramen noodle art competition>, but I’m already signed up to <attend a jungle panda conference/judge a pasta statue competition>, and that’s enough for me at the moment.

Shit’s crazy, and now’s just not a good time: Apologies, I can’t be an extra in your space monkey movie. I’ve been running on empty and need some time to recharge this weekend.

Just not interested: I’m not the best person to help you with space monkeys because my current passion is deep-sea pigs.

Saying no shouldn’t have to be hard, especially when it gives you the opportunity to reflect on what you are prioritizing in your life. Don’t over-think it — you‘re saying no so that you can say yes to something else that you value. That’s not an excuse. That’s a reason anyone can understand.

Sidenote: the monkey in the photo is named Miss Baker and was the first animal successfully sent by the US into space.

Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass

Building Sundial (sundial.so). Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.