How to Say No Politely

The Punk Rock HR podcast is a fun project and has opened up many new relationships in my life. The podcast began as Let’s Fix Work, and doing these episodes has left me more convinced than ever that the modern world of work is broken.

Some people disagree with me, which makes for interesting discussions. Sometimes, people decline to be on my show because the word “broken” feels a little too strong.

Other times, potential guests object to the word “fix.” One person told me that it’s not the right word. Work is “too complex” and “fix is the wrong word” to use for such a nuanced topic.

I didn’t know how to respond, so I thanked him for his time and wrote, “I believe winners fix things.”

(Have to thank my buddy Jesse Itzler for those inspired words.)

I don’t mind it when people tell me no. I say no to things all the time. It’s all about tone and intention. When you say no with good intent, most people understand.

One time, I invited an esteemed professor and author to be on my podcast. He had a new book out, and it was pretty good. I wanted him on what was then Let’s Fix Work as a guest, plus a feature of his book in the HR Book Club. So, I reached out on LinkedIn, and he invited me to move the conversation over to email.

He responded that he was interested, “I have interest. I am about to go to Europe for two weeks. Let’s set something up after May 19. Please e-mail me at [redacted] to coordinate.”

I followed up via email, and here is his reply.


“Too small an audience for the time commitment. Everyone in the universe now has a podcast and I find doing them to be mostly not very useful.”

Whoa, OK, whiplash.

It’s not the worst response, but it’s not the best. And I love how he thought my audience wasn’t big enough for his time commitment — as if we’re measuring reach and resonance in inches.

I laughed out loud at the response, but then thought about why he chose to respond so negatively.

  1. Maybe he’s crusty, clueless and harmless.
  2. It’s possible that he enjoys turning the screws and gives feedback to feel superior over people.
  3. He is grieving in some way, and the 180-degree response has nothing to do with me.

I’m not in the business of disparaging anybody’s character, so I’ll keep his name private. But it’s curious how older white men in power still feel that it’s OK to talk to women like this, especially after the global discussions in recent years about #MeToo and power.

Also, it’s even more interesting how someone who “knows business” doesn’t know how to write a more appropriate response. Someone needs to teach this dude some manners. Or maybe not. Maybe you don’t need manners when you’re as established as he is.

Here’s what I do know: People will seek your time for all kinds of ridiculous reasons. They still deserve respectful responses. Also, check your assumptions about the incoming request. Maybe it’s not as ridiculous as it seems.

I also believe that, in a world that can be so cruel and thoughtless, it’s important to be kind. I’m going to use my blog and podcast to fix work. Part of my mission is to make sure you never respond to people like the esteemed professor responded to me.

Want to fix work? Have some manners. Here’s how to say no without hurting someone’s feelings.

Advice for Saying No Without Being Rude

You can get quite the reputation if how you say no feels rude and unhelpful. No one enjoys rejection. I don’t care who you are or what you do. Killing someone with kindness can lessen the blow to the ego. When using a little grace, you can make someone feel less jilted or even appreciated when saying no.

  • Bad: “I will have to pass.”
  • Better: “It sounds like a great opportunity, but I have to pass.”
  • Best: “Thank you so much for considering me. It was an intriguing offer! But it isn’t a good fit for me at this time.”

The best example starts with a positive tone, followed up with professional kindness, before breaking the bad news.

When You Want to Leave the Door Open

You can be clear, concise and brief without being brusque and borderline (if not entirely) rude. You have the right to say no without an explanation, but that isn’t always the best approach.

Sometimes the way we word things makes all the difference, and it only means changing or adding a word or two. Let me give you an example.

  • Bad: “Nope, I can’t help with that.”
  • Better: “I regrettably can’t assist you at this time.”
  • Best: “I appreciate you considering me for this project. I sadly can’t assist you at this time. I hope you keep me in mind in the future.”

The best example keeps the door open for future opportunities. But don’t tell them to keep the door open for you unless you mean it. Saying no more than once can slam that door shut — and possibly other doors.

When It’s a Definite No

Sometimes we say no, just for today. Other times, it is a hard no today, tomorrow and in the future. You can give the reasons for your no, but sometimes leaving an opening for someone to argue their way onto your schedule does more harm than good.

  • Bad: “My workload is too heavy this week to take this project on.”
  • Better: “I appreciate you keeping me in mind. But my schedule is full, and if I take on your project, I fear it would not be quality work. Again, thank you for the offer.”
  • Best: “Thank you so much for the offer! However, I am unavailable for new projects for the foreseeable future. I will let you know when I become available.”

The best example gives you the power to open and close that door. It keeps someone from forcing themselves onto your schedule while protecting their ego. Also, you are giving yourself room to walk through that door in the future.

Most of all, don’t be rude. It isn’t helpful, and you might find yourself the subject of a blog post.

1 Comment

  1. HI Laurie,

    Thank you for taking the time to share the above – very true. But one thing I was just not feeling good about: Why are you stating, it was bad behaviour against women? Are you assuming he would have sent a different mail to another male? I can hardly believe that and don’t see any evidence here. Hence I’d give him the credit of being “just” impolite but not at all focussed on behaving badly against women. Would you agree?


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