How can I say no without offending

Is your diary always looking full and overwhelming? Are you struggling to find time to do any actual work or enjoy the things you love? It could be that you’re saying ‘yes’ too often, giving away your precious time to others – which can leave you feeling frustrated, frazzled and resentful.

It’s where learning to say ‘no’ will become your time management weapon of choice. You’re not a superhero. There are only so many hours in each day. Saying no doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s about putting yourself first, and valuing your own time, health and happiness.

Even Steve Jobs himself said that “Focusing is about saying no”.

But how do you say ‘no’ without causing any upset? And how do you turn down the right things? It can be a tightrope, but the following advice will help you to free up your diary and get on with your life:

1. Stop and assess

First things first, take a step back and look at how you spend your time. Dig out your diary, go through recent events on your work calendar, and get to grips with what you’re saying yes to. Do you see any patterns? Who or what are you not turning down? Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? Identify where you’re going wrong, so you can say no to these people or things in future.

2. Ditch the guilt

Before we teach you the art of saying no, understand that you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re not selfish – it’s just that you can’t do everything or please everyone. ‘No’ isn’t a dirty word. It can be very healthy and necessary in specific scenarios. By saying no, you’re being true to yourself and respecting your own time and values.

If anyone is making you feel guilty for saying no, then that says more about them than you. No one has the right to control your life. Take your power back and understand that guilt can also be a weapon people use to get what they want.

3. Slow down

How do you decide whether you should do something? That can be tough. Often, we feel put on the spot and might panic and say yes when we want to say no. In which case, the next time someone asks you to do something, you don’t have to give an immediate response.

It is okay to say: “I’ll need to check and get back to you”. It buys you some time to decide whether to say yes or no. People should understand that you have commitments and will want to consult your diary before finalising anything.

4. It’s the way you say it

How do you use the right tone and language to say no without offending anyone? It’s not easy, that’s for sure. What you don’t want to do is nervously ramble, as you might give mixed messages. That’s why a polite but firm no will suffice. You don’t have to make excuses. You mustn’t apologise – you have done nothing wrong. Just get straight to the point, but keep it light and friendly.

Still not sure how to frame your response? Quite simply, don’t give the other person any chance to misunderstand. Start with a compliment, thank the person for the opportunity, say no and then offer some advice on how they might proceed forward. Then change the subject or excuse yourself.

5. Learn to tackle common scenarios with grace

For some extra tips on handling various situations, the following examples should help. You’ll need to adapt accordingly – but these will give you an idea on how to handle typical scenarios:

When a co-worker wants you to do something

If you work at a busy agency, you might sometimes come across difficult colleagues who try to palm off additional work that you can’t handle. In which case, say something like:

“It’s great to think you’ve asked me for support. I’m not able to help right now, as I’ve got this project that needs my full attention this week/month. Thanks for coming to me, though. It’s tough for all of us at the moment, but I know we’ll get through this.”

When someone calls or drops by when you’re supposed to be working

It’s lovely having friends or family call or drop by, but if deadlines are looming – you’ll have to find a diplomatic way to get rid of them. Say something like:

“I’m sorry I can’t invite you in/talk to you right now. I’m up to my neck in deadlines and need to buckle down. Can we catch up later when I’m not pulling my hair out? When’s a good time for you?”

When a friend wants some free advice

It’s a tricky one. You want to help your friend, but you can’t work for free. Handle this situation by gently pointing out that you have fees and will charge accordingly. Say something like:

“I’m so flattered you’ve come to me for help. I’d love to offer my services. Here’s my business card, which includes my website address. If you want to call or email me during office hours, I’d be happy to discuss my rates.”

When a client asks for a free favour

Keeping clients happy is always a priority when you freelance, which can make it difficult to say no when they ask for free stuff. The next time someone does this to you, say something like:

“This sounds like a great piece of work. Would you like me to cost this up for you? Do you have time to get together to discuss in more detail so that I can put together a comprehensive quote?”

When someone won’t take no for an answer

If you’ve followed our advice, and someone still won’t accept your answer – acknowledge that their behaviour is negative, and is a result of their faults, not your own. Repeat your reason for saying no, and don’t lose confidence. Stick to your guns. Say something like:

“As I said, I really can’t find the time right now. I wouldn’t want to commit to something I know I can’t do. I wish you luck though, and know you’ll make this a success.”

To Conclude

Saying no is liberating. It can be a positive word that means you’re saying yes to other things – like having more time and energy, and a healthier work/life balance. Be true to yourself and your convictions – not just because time is money, but because time is all we have.


Freelancer FAQ