How To Start Saying No (With Email Prompts You Can Use)

Sarah Kathleen Peck
5 min readJan 16, 2019

Saying no is powerful. My toddler wields the word on a daily basis, and in many ways, I’m in awe of his unabashed claim of the word.

Despite being an empowering, commanding and beautiful word to utilize, many people struggle to say no. Bad habits, social conditioning, peer pressure, or power dynamics can make it difficult to refuse a request. The best leaders and CEOs strengthen their ability to say no, and do so thoughtfully and decisively. They know what they want, and insist on it.

It can take practice to harness the super power of saying no. The first time you consciously assert yourself in this way, especially at work, it may feel awkward, like you’re doing something wrong. If you’re trapped at work, or stuck with too many projects on your plate, and feel overwhelmed, here are six ways to say no, with word-for-word scripts you can use.

Get very clear on what you want

People often say yes to everything when they aren’t clear what their one priority or goal is. What’s your biggest priority right now? What do you want most?

If your goal is to do a great job at work and please your boss, then it may seem like you need to do everything they ask of you. This is a poor strategy, however, because if you over-commit, burnout, or do lackluster work because you’re spread too thin, that doesn’t help your case.

Instead, ask your boss: “I want to do a great job here and support you and the mission of the company. What’s the most important thing I could accomplish in my first year here?” Align with them on the main goal, and your ability to focus will become far easier down the line. When your boss comes back and asks you to finish a project that seems unrelated, you can say:

“I’ve got three projects on my plate, and we’re focused on achieving {our main priority}. It seems like Project D is a distraction from this goal, unless I’m missing something.”

Without boundaries, you can end up saying yes to the wrong things.

Try using “no” as your default answer

Many people, especially women, have been trained to say “yes” as their default behavior. Without consciously thinking about it, you say yes to every request that comes across your desk and floats through your inbox. No wonder you are exhausted! Try this for a week or two, as an experiment: tell yourself you’re going to say no to absolutely anything and everything that comes across your desk.

Sound scary? This is a great way to rethink what your default patterns are, and disrupt your normal behavior. Here’s a script you can use:

“I’m booked with commitments these next two weeks, so I’m sorry, I can’t make it.”

The key here is not to make excuses, but to just say no. Pay attention to what makes you squirm the most, or which invitations feel the hardest to say no to.

Say no by creating tension for the asker

Often you’ll get requests from people who aren’t aware of your entire workload. Especially on dynamic teams, you can get flooded with requests and quickly have a backlog of work pile up. How to deal with a colleague that keeps throwing stuff on your plate?

Say no by creating tension. Give the parameters back to the person making the request, forcing them to make the decision. “This sounds like an amazing project,” you say, in agreement with the asker. “Yet we’ve already committed to Project A and Project B.” This adds clarity. Now, put the tension back into the mix:

“Which project should we put on hold so we can add this to our plates?”

This works for partners, too. When I pile too many things on the calendar, my partner pushes back and uses this on me: “We’ve already said yes to two dinner invitations this week. Which one can we switch or push back if we want to add this event to our week?”

Rewrite your understanding of the scope of what you’re really saying no to

The insidious part of being a “yes” person is that you are also saying no, but to other things you might not be aware of. When you fill your plate full of deadlines and tasks, you don’t have the bandwidth for a larger, more meaningful project when it comes along. You also are saying no to all the other things you might want in your life, whether that’s personal relationships, exercise or health, or a dream you have.

Ask yourself: what are all the things you’re saying no to or putting on hold by saying yes to everything else?

For me, one of the hardest things to remember to say “yes” to is time writing and exploring my book project. I finally fessed up to this in my replies to people, and eventually learned how to use it as a way to say no. Steal this script (and insert your own dream project).

“I would love to be a part of this event, but every event I say yes to means I’m saying no to the book I want to be writing. So, I have to sadly decline, knowing that you’ll all have a wonderful time, and that I’ll be pursuing my life dream of writing a book.”

Suggest someone else

Sometimes I get requests that I just cannot do. I was asked to travel halfway around the world for a conference the same weekend as my baby was due to arrive. In this case, I immediately thought of people that would be a great fit, and I realized this was a great strategy for other times in my life when I couldn’t pack more in. When my schedule is already full, I like to match great opportunities with people that could be an even better fit. It’s important, however, to check with the person you’re suggesting first and see if they are interested. It might not be the right time for them, either.

Steal this script:

“I’m already committed that weekend. Have you considered these other speakers as possibilities? They’d both be great and I’m happy to connect you, if you’d like.”

Don’t be afraid to be firm

Practice speaking up. Draw finite lines. Your goal is not to be well-liked, but well respected. Saying no commands respect and attention. People may balk at your first use of the word no, but will grow to respect it overtime. When we defend our own time, we remind others of our boundaries and we are remind ourselves that we are worthy of it.

When all else fails, keep it simple. Thank the requester for their time, and simply decline. Here’s one final script:

I appreciate you reaching out. I will have to decline this time. Thank you!

This post was originally published on Women@Forbes.



Sarah Kathleen Peck

Escape from Alcatraz swimmer. NCAA All-American. Founder of Startup Parent: http:/