When the answer is no - Blog Top Image

When the Answer Is 'No'

Better Ways to Say "No"

There’s been an interesting trend lately. Volunteer coordinators that I know are once again struggling to find volunteers, for a variety of different reasons. For some, it’s that the last 18 months have made them readjust their priorities. For others, the comfort of home over the last 18 months makes it hard to trade the bunny slippers for real shoes and head out the door. For others, continued concerns about being present physically with others makes them reluctant to say "yes."

In any case, people seem to be saying "no. And whether what you need to say "no" to is a volunteer opportunity or an impossible task that someone has asked you to do, there are ways and better ways to let someone down.


Let’s look at a couple of things not to do:

1 - Don’t disappear. 

Ghosting someone, or becoming completely absent and unavailable, failing to return phone calls, texts, or emails over an extended period of time is not a great way to go. The other person has to spend extra time trying to track you down. And their memory of that level of disrespect may carry forward when you might otherwise need their help someday down the road.

Make time to answer the question, even if the answer might not be the one they want.


2 - Don’t say “yes” when the answer is really “no.” 

Telling someone you will do something or you can do something or the thing they’re asking for is possible when deep down, you know you won’t, or can’t, or the laws of physics simply won’t allow it creates unnecessary distress for others. While at the beginning, they may be relieved at your “yes” answer, when they discover “no” down the road, they will be required to scramble to find a solution.

If you know the answer is “no,” let your answer be “no.”


Now let’s look at some ways to do this: 

Tapping into your emotional intelligence here will help you out! While I usually approach emotional intelligence in the order in which we develop them, in this one I’m going to put some in the reverse order to make sure you’re thinking about all four aspects.


Practice good relationship management

One of the things we know for sure about emotional intelligence is that we’re actively working towards the best possible outcome for the parties involved. With that in mind, think about your relationship with this other person and the organization to which you both belong or the shared goal you’re both trying to accomplish. Genuinely give yourself a minute or two to think about what you value about that person and their organization and what options exist that could help them achieve their goals.

  • Maybe it’s not you, but it’s someone else you can recommend.
  • Maybe it’s not Tuesday, but you could do it by next Friday.
  • Maybe it’s not solution “X”, but a combination of solutions “Y” and “Z” could get us there.


Demonstrate keen social awareness 

Take a moment and put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

  • What are they thinking and feeling and experiencing?
  • What else is going on in their world? How do they communicate?
  • What verbal and nonverbal indicators have they given you about their personal stake in the topic or question at hand?

Thinking this through enables you to treat them with the care and attention that they need. You’ll be able to soften your voice, or to be direct and brief if that’s what they need, or to be ready to empathize and help them process the emotions associated with your response. Even going so far as to say “I imagine this must frustrate you” or “ I know this is a disappointment” or “I’m so sorry this didn’t work out the way you had hoped” would be good. These are all great ways of validating how the other person might be feeling.


Apply conscious self-management

Self-management is what lets us behave the way the situation calls for, regardless of what our naturally occurring self would do. In a situation like this, if you’re uncomfortable with conflict, and your instinct would be to run away, self management is what brings you to the table for the tough conversation. If your natural style is to be direct, self management is what lets you soften the language and the conversation. Ultimately, self management is about putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own, even from a communication standpoint.

  • How do you need to adjust your words, message, and mode for the situation at hand?
  • How can you pace your conversation and tempo to be effective?
  • How can you match your tone to the end outcome you're looking for?


Make time for self-awareness

Self-awareness in this case is taking a moment to recognize your own blind spots, challenge areas, triggers, and tendencies. It’s where you take a moment and really reflect on your priorities and validate that your behavior is consistent with the priorities you have stated publicly. This is a chance to stop and ask yourself if the thing really isn’t possible, or if it’s just that you don’t want to do it. It’s a chance to figure out what’s getting in the way. For example,

  • Sometimes things seem daunting because they don’t align with our natural strengths.
  • Sometimes things seem overwhelming because we’re looking at them from a position of already being tired or overwhelmed.
  • Sometimes things look impossible from one angle that might actually be entirely possible if you’d from a different angle.
  • Sometimes an inability to focus makes any responsibility seem more daunting.
Taking a moment of self-awareness helps you make sure you’ve had a chance to be real about the situation.


So there’s the recommendation, if the answer that you need to give someone is "no," – "no I can’t volunteer for you," "no I can’t have that done on Tuesday," "no the thing you’re asking for is not possible" – take some time to apply your emotional intelligence to think through how to move the relationship forward in the best way, how to help the other person and communicate with them the way they need, and how to manage your own strengths and blind spots so that you’re not getting in your own way in this conversation.

How about you? What do you do when you have to tell someone "no"?


Topics: Sinikka Waugh, Communication & Collaboration

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us! contactus@yourclearnextstep.com








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