Say “No” to Me, Please!

“Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring, and integrity, they think of you.” (H. Jackson Brown, Jr.)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhen I was in the business world, it happened all too often. I would call the sales manager at a favorite hotel and leave a message asking if they had space for a workshop on such-and-such a date. And I would get no response.

Or I would call a member of one of the nonprofits we managed and ask if he was interested in serving on a taskforce to meet with the Governor over health policy. The response: crickets.

Or maybe I would ask a speaker to let me know if she was available to do a keynote at a client’s annual meeting. More crickets.

As I delved into this growing phenomenon, I discovered that the failure to respond wasn’t generally due to the individual being out of town, or on vacation, or even too busy. But simply because they didn’t want to say “no” to me. They felt it was preferable to leave me hanging than to say no, they didn’t have meeting space on the day I was seeking, or no, they couldn’t participate in a conference, or no, they were too busy to get involved in a committee.

One was even forthright enough to tell me she was sorry she hadn’t called, but she just didn’t have the heart to say “no” to me.

“I just didn’t want to disappoint you, Donna,” she told me.


Here’s the thing: I’m a grown-up. I can take it. I’ve heard “no” plenty of times in my life, and with very few exceptions, I took it quite well. Really. While “yes” is certainly my preferred response, “no” is the next-best thing, because it allows me to move to Plan B . . . and there’s always a Plan B.

Are we all becoming so milquetoasty that we can’t say no anymore?

There are now executive classes and self-help books teaching us how to say no. What has brought us to the point that we are paying “experts” to help us be more assertive—with our employees, our co-workers, our family, and our customers.

We are forking over big dough to have someone tell us what we already know—and we do, don’t we?—that it’s okay to say no. We’re afraid we’ll hurt someone’s feelings, we’ll offend, we won’t be liked if we say no. Have we really thought this through? Wouldn’t we rather be told the truth than strung along and prevented from moving to the next option?

Likewise, don’t say maybe when you know the answer is no. Believe me, people won’t think less of you because you say no to them. But they will think less of you when you say maybe and then never follow-up, or when you say yes, but don’t mean it . . . when you don’t return a phone call or reply to an e-mail.

As business professionals—or human beings, for that matter—few things are more important than our reputations. They follow us everywhere, and often precede us. We all know somebody about whom others say, “Oh, he never follows through,” “You just can’t rely on her,” or “I can’t get her to return a simple call.” There can be multiple reasons for such behavior—they’re too busy, too important, too disorganized, or maybe they never learned the importance of common courtesy. But if the reason is that you can’t bear to say no to a friend or colleague, get over it.

Do you have a problem saying no? Maybe it’s easy to say to your spouse, but hard to be that direct with a client or a friend. Maybe you’re good at saying no at work, but at home you’re something of a marshmallow.

Practice. Next time you’re asked to do something you really don’t want to do, don’t hem, don’t haw. Look that person in the eye and say with all sincerity:

  • I’m sorry, I can’t do that
  • No, I’m afraid that date won’t work for me. I hope you’ll ask me again, though.
  • No, my plate is full right now. But it was kind of you to ask.

Now, I’m not advocating for us all to become selfish, me-first jerks. The world’s already crowded with them. If some asks you to do something and you are able—even if it’s a bit of an inconvenience—why not say yes and spread some kindness and generosity? But if you really can’t, or really don’t want to, say no. Say it loud. Say it proud.

Say it with kindness, respect, appreciation, regret—or whatever fits the occasion. But as the old song says, “don’t say you will when, baby, you won’t, and don’t say you do when, baby, you don’t!”

Say no to me. It’s okay.

“Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to face the truth. Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity.” (W. Clement Stone)

[One new feature of my website is on the home page where I invite your brief stories of kindness. If you’ve extended, received, or witnessed a a kindness, I hope you will consider sharing your story. There’s a link to the submission form. Let’s spread the kindness!]

29 thoughts on “Say “No” to Me, Please!

  1. Wow, did you ever just press one of my hot buttons! It drives me out of my mind when people don’t return emails and phone calls! It is rude, unprofessional and disrespectful. It tells me they can’t be bothered because you’re important enough to them. You can bet they’d get back to their kid’s principal, their boss’s boss, someone they’re out to impress or anyone who could do something for them — without any fear of saying “no.” And if they are such wimps, they shouldn’t be in positions of authority. If there’s anything leaders and successful people have to do all the time is say “no.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said, Fransi! We’re in total agreement on this. I just don’t understand why common courtesy eludes so many people. I guess it’s more like uncommon courtesy….


  2. You’re right, often saying no is much kinder than “maybe,” which makes people think there is a chance you will do what they want when there really isn’t. And saying no is always better than no response at all. I think as long as we are polite about it, there’s nothing wrong with saying no at all! Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Donna, great column! You have it in a nutshell. There is a whole book about this issue: “NO, the only negotiating system you need for work and home,” by Jim Camp. I loved this book so much that one Christmas I gave it to all three of my sons AND their girlfriends!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for mentioning Jim Camp’s book, Ann. I have put it on reserve at my local library. Sounds like it should be required reading for many of us. So good to hear from you—hope all is well.


  4. When contemplating saying no, I often think of the New Yorker cartoon, in which a guy’s standing at his office desk, speaking to someone on the phone. He has his appointment book open, and is pointing to a date on the page, and he says, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?” Sometimes when I say no, I’m thinking, “how about never”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s long been one of my favorite cartoons, Kris. I’ve never had the courage to say out loud “How about never–is never good for you?” but, oh, I’ve wanted to a few times!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this perspective, Donna! I never think the person is trying to spare my feelings; my assumption is that they have no regard for them.
    I just sent a batch of emails inquiring for a babysitter and only two people replied— both no, but kind.
    From now I will just ask for what I need: “As a courtesy, please reply with either a negative or positive response. Your prompt reply will allow me to make my plans more efficiently and effectively. Thank you!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder when we stopped teaching common courtesy or even recognizing the importance of good manners. Even the words “courtesy” and “manners” sound quaint in 2018. But I’ll bet those people who practice these quaint skills will see greater success and satisfaction than those who don’t. Thanks, Cathy!

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  6. I’m not sure when responding to a request became optional. Yes, no, maybe, later, never, let me get back to you by such-and-such a date… all ok answers. Crickets are not ok. On the other hand, we on the receiving end of a response we might not like need to be careful not to make the responder feel guilty or like they have disappointed us. Graciousness goes both ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make a good point, Janis. It’s possible that some people may be reluctant to say “no” because they fear the reaction of the other person. Courtesy does, indeed, go both ways. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post Donna and sadly very true. Must admit I don’t find it hard to say no. It can be uncomfortable but I prefer to let people know where they stand. To me it’s just common courtesy.

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  8. You have a special blog. Thanks for the uplifting thoughts and stories. Also, thanks for reading my post about my ninety year old mother’s memory aids. I write about her often. She’s an uplifting story in herself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Lisa, for your kind words and for following A Year of Living Kindly. I really enjoy your blog, and loved your mother’s trick for remembering things. It wouldn’t work for me because I’d eat those Hershey Nuggets before I’d remember why I put them out. I may have to try tossing coasters, though. They’d be safe from my chocolate urges. I enjoy reading about your mother. She sounds like a hoot!

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