How to Say No Gracefully

Saying no to a senior leader or customer seems almost unthinkable, even laughable, for many people. However, when saying yes is going to compromise your ability to make thehighest contribution, it is also your obligation. We would expect a CFO to push back on a CEO if they felt the decision being made was wrong. Indeed, we would see it as their fiduciary responsibility.

The problem for many of us, however, is that saying no can be incredibly awkward. So much so that we say yes by default and then regret it afterwards. Still, it can be done graciously.

As just one example, E.B. White said no graciously, and with some humor, in a letter dated September 28, 1956. He wrote:

Dear Mr. Adams,

Thanks for your letter inviting me to join the committee of the Arts and Sciences for Eisenhower.

I must decline, for secret reasons.



White’s response illustrates a simple template we can adapt it to every request you want to say no to. There are three steps to it:

Step 1: Affirm the relationship. e.g. “It really is good to hear from you.”

Step 2: Thank the person sincerely for the opportunity. e.g. Thank you ever so much for thinking of me! It sounds like such a brilliant project. I am complimented that you thought of me.”

Step 3: Decline firmly and politely. e.g.For several reasons I need to pass on this at the moment.

Saying no is like any other skill: it can be improved through practice. Start practicing with a relatively trivial request, like a lunch invitation you have received in email. Over time build up until saying no becomes easy. It may be the most useful skill you ever develop. Because it’s only by saying no to things that aren’t really meaningful that we have the space and energy to concentrate on the things that are.

Originally posted on LinkedIn

(Image Credit: OJO Images / Getty Images)

2 thoughts on “How to Say No Gracefully

  1. jamie says:

    thanks for this blog post! loved your book “Essentialism” but luckily this is easily found via google search, and accessible when I need it! Just helped me say no to a less-than-essential opportunity!

  2. Jay Rowden says:

    Hi Greg – I LOVED your book Essentialism. I listened to it via Audible and it’s ni ce for once to hear the author’s voice instead of an actor! Anyhow, the book is a total game changer and I can thank you enough for helping me over the line in so many different areas of my life, though the business side of my life has been transformative. I just wanted to say thank you once again and thanks for the chapter on saying no. I am just about to use it for the first time, hence my reason for being here. Cheers, Jay

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