November 2012

Saying "No" Gracefully

by Jay W. Vogt

Learning how to say "no" is a critical skill in work life, so let's briefly explore why it feels so hard for some of us to do and then learn a couple of techniques that will make saying "no" much easier.

Why It Is Hard to Say "No"

Many of us feel that if we say "no" to requests, we'll be disappointing others. In fact, that will sometimes be the case—but take a step back from the exchange and reflect for a moment on the bigger picture. The person making a request has needs that are important. But the person receiving the request—that's you—also has needs that are important. The key to saying "no" gracefully is being willing to have your needs be as important as someone else's.

Honoring Your Needs

If your needs are as important as someone else's needs, then you have the right to act on them. If covering for a colleague helps them in a pinch, great. But if doing so puts you into a pinch, remember that your needs are just as important. You have the right to say "no." Connecting with your right to have your needs be as important as the needs of others is the inner work that must happen first. Once we do that, saying "no" becomes easier.

It Doesn't Work for Me

Let's assume that you're now clear that your needs are just as important as those of others, and that you have given yourself the right to say "no." Just saying "no" and nothing further can feel abrupt, but going on and on with all your reasons can feel excessive—and for some people, hearing reasons why something can't happen is just an invitation to argue how those reasons can be overcome.

When you want to say more than "no" and less than a laundry list of reasons why you are saying "no," just say, "It doesn't work for me" or "I'm sorry, but that doesn't work for me." Such an approach is neutral and sends the intended message without being too abrupt or long-winded.

The "No Sandwich"

Perhaps you sense that you're entitled to say "no" as simply as "It doesn't work for me," but you prefer to say it in a way that feels warmer and lets the other person down just a little bit easier. In this case, the no sandwich is for you. The no sandwich has three parts, where the two outer parts help maintain the relationship and the inner part conveys the "no." The three parts are:

  1. Express connection or appreciation—say something like: "I would really like to help you."
  2. Say "no"—say something like: "I can't cover for you today."
  3. End on a positive note—say something like: "Perhaps some other time."

Saying "No" Gracefully

Being able to say "no" starts with believing that you are entitled to say "no" even if others are disappointed, because your needs are as important as those of others. From that belief, you find the courage, when needed, to say "no" or "It doesn't work for me," or that most gentle of all rejections, the no sandwich.

Jay W. Vogt is an organizational development consultant and author of Recharge Your Team—The Grounded Visioning Approach. Learn more at