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The Gracious No: A Realist's Guide to Building Space for Yes

The Gracious No: A Realist's Guide to Building Space for Yes

We humans are wired for connection. Being on good terms with others is a basic element of the human experience, as critical to our wellbeing as food, water, and shelter from the elements. Underneath our polish and business attire, cave-dwelling era operating systems still run the show.

So when I decline an invitation from "James" to meet for coffee and brainstorm an idea, I feel unsettled on a real, existential level. He likely feels rejected and annoyed. Who likes being told "no?" Repeat this professional interaction ten times in a day throughout a twenty-year career - then layer on the demands of family life, community, and personal projects - and demands on our time and attention can feel unsustainable.

As modern humans, we have to say "no." The mathematical formula of our complex lives demands it. We are juggling more externally-driven commitments and internally-driven desires than humanly possible. We are fortunate to have such variety, information, and opportunity to serve at our fingertips. But are we truly happy and healthy trying to sustain this level of engagement?

In the corporate world, particularly in professional services, saying "yes" with alacrity and going above and beyond feel like baseline expectations. Saying "no" is on the far end of that spectrum.

So how can I graciously say "no" to this tsunami of possibilities and requests in a way that protects my time and energy while leaving others feeling good about our interaction? And in a way that leaves me feeling good about my contribution?

Turning to the experts, we find some ideas.

  • Ryan Holiday penned a great blog post on the topic. I reached the end a convert to his philosophy and committed to better protecting my time and energy, but was left wondering: Could I really decline a meeting invite citing “calendar anorexia?”
  • Others recommend setting “no” as their default response. To everything. Anything worth saying "yes" to must come with serious convincing. But does this work for a young person early on in their career? Or even your everyday professional? In my view, no.

Let’s circle back to "James" for a moment. Even if he knows on some level that he’s one of thirty people requesting an hour of my time this week, and even if he does the math and considers the impossibility of my saying "yes," he is special. He is highly successful, well-compensated, and has a healthy ego.

[Related: Have a Destination in Mind? Put Your Foot on the Path and Start Walking]

Using e-mail as an example, he isn’t going to like this response:

Hi James, thank you so much for reaching out. I have recently instituted a policy against taking meetings not directly tied to current client projects....

Or:

Hi James, I am swamped at the moment, but wish you the best of luck with your project!

Or an auto reply:

I am currently on vacation and will be declaring e-mail bankruptcy upon my return. Please reach out to me again after July 10th if your outreach requires my attention.

Or, being completely honest:

Hi James, your e-mail is clearly a form note containing multiple fonts, and I’m naturally inclined to hit delete on principal. But my place in this ecosystem requires politeness. I would love to grab coffee but I need to stay focused on my current projects. Unhappy clients go elsewhere, and an executive recruiter with no search mandates is of no use to anyone, including you. Also, my son broke his collarbone when his little brother pushed him off the slide, so I have some medical and character development issues to deal with on the home front. My husband is (understandably) frustrated because I haven’t asked about his day. In eight years. Our hundred-year-old Tudor is in desperate need of renovation, but we somehow can’t seem to find time to change light bulbs. To be completely honest, I am heading to a yoga retreat before I go insane. So, sorry, can’t spent an hour grabbing coffee. But let’s definitely keep in touch!

Sarah Knight might have encouraged me to send that e-mail. I haven’t read her book, but found her TED Talk, "The Magic of Not Giving a F***," incredibly thought-provoking. After some initial resistance, I took the challenge of following one of her exercises. I created a “F***s Budget.” The results were, in fact, magical. Even just moving a handful of small things off my “F***s budget” gave me back three hours in my week. To a working parent, three hours can be incredibly valuable.

[Related: Sorry, Not Sorry: How to Stop Caring About What People Think]

Amidst all the expert advice, I found Caroline Webb to be the most professional and practical. She is currently CEO of Sevenshift, having previously spent twelve years as a management consultant at McKinsey. In short, she gets it. Her book is not only super specific, but deeply rooted in behavioral science. On saying "no," she offers a formula:

  1. Start with warmth.
  2. Your "yes."
  3. Your "no."
  4. End with warmth.

I received the response below just a few weeks ago from a client declining our invite to an upcoming event. It followed Caroline’s formula so closely I asked if she had read the article. She hadn’t (some people are just inherently gracious, I guess).

Hi, Laurie -

Hope you are well and thanks so much for inviting me to this event. I think it looks great. Unfortunately, I am completely jammed on the 6th. I will see if someone on my team is attending, as I think the content is really quite relevant for us. Also, I am attaching an article you might find helpful for the session.

Many thanks again!

RS

One key takeaway from this is that saying "no" graciously takes time and thoughtfulness. The best responses are surprisingly lengthy, complimentary, and transparent. They offer recommendations or valuable information, demonstrate serious consideration, and contain a high level of warmth and personality. As it turns out, the gracious "no" takes time.

Which brings us back to our game of whack-a mole – good intentions battling an endless stream of emerging demands.

Remember my “f****s budget?” Responding to blast e-mail or random LinkedIn outreach (as defined by lacking my name, any context of how we’re connected, or containing multiple fonts) didn’t make the cut. The gracious "no" has limitations.

Also on the chopping block: Attending my son’s mind-numbing hours-long baseball games in their entirety, wrestling with Squarespace to build a website (outsourced to Quad Jobs), and grocery shopping (also outsourced). I used that extra time in recent weeks to more thoughtfully respond where it matters and successfully pull off two professional events back-to-back – something I find engaging, energizing, and rewarding.

As I sit writing on a Saturday morning, I am bound to be disappointing someone. I love writing, and this topic has been burning up in my mind for almost a year. But should I be exercising? Making breakfast for my kids? Listening to how my husband’s week went? Attending my son’s baseball game? Analyzing a challenging project? Churning through the hundreds of e-mails that somehow accumulated despite my best efforts this week? Catching up on world events? Reading the book on crypto that an industry colleague optimistically sent me?

The struggle is real.

My hope for this article is that you're left with a bit more inspiration and tools to keep fighting the good fight. The world needs our contributions - unless, of course, we choose to politely direct them elsewhere today.

[Related: To Stand Out: Create The Rules, Don't Follow Them]

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Laurie Thompson is a Principal in the Global Financial Services Practice at Heidrick and Struggles, the executive search and leadership advisory firm. She is also an aspiring author who writes about integrating professional life with motherhood.


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