How to Stay Connected to People Even When You Tell Them “No”


We all have principles that we live our lives by, and it can be really frustrating when others don’t follow them, too.

Here’s one of my guiding principles that it seems like few people practice: getting back to people with a clear answer after they’ve asked or offered you something. To me, it’s about showing someone the respect they deserve and, when necessary, having the courage to disappoint people.

For instance, recently I was invited by someone to attend a weekly class. The class looked interesting but the effort to attend didn’t seem to be outweighed by the value of attending, especially considering other constraints on my time. It would have been so easy to delete, ignore or defer the email. I was one of several people getting the email, and it wasn’t likely this person would expect everyone to respond.

I sent a short response, though. Something like, “Thank you for thinking of me. The class looks interesting and I wish I could attend but can’t make it work right now. I hope to see you soon.”

His response surprised me. It went something like, “Matt, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you getting back to me. I understand that we can’t make everything work and hope to see you soon, too.”

The relationship was affirmed and strengthened. We connected.

Contrast this with an offer I made to help someone a couple of months ago. He was initially very receptive, but he got busy and my offer to help wasn’t one of his highest needs. So he went dark, figuring I’d get the hint and forget about it, or that we’d talk eventually. Well, eventually I suppose it got awkward. Enough time passed where it seemed strange to talk about it at all as the need was gone and to discuss it would risk making him feel ashamed.

The relationship was distanced and weakened. We disconnected.

Caucasian man with duct tape on mouth, white . Conceptual image.

If relationships and connection are important to you this year, consider this guiding principle: get back to people who have asked or offered something. They have extended a part of themselves. To decline it is just fine. To disregard it is damaging.

The difficulty of saying “no”

For many people it’s very uncomfortable to say “no.” But thinking that the question or offer will just go away is only kicking the discomfort down the road.

Consider saying “no” as a skill to be developed and nurtured. Specifically, improve your ability to:

  • Delay a response for about 24 hours to get comfortable in your “no.”
  • Authentically affirm and appreciate the person and their invitation while still saying “no.”
  • Be really clear that your “no” is a “no.”
  • Stand your ground.
  • Remember that, if your answer is “no,” the kindest thing you can do is tell the person quickly.
  • Confidently say “yes” to whatever the “no” enables you to do.

Who is waiting for you to get back to them? Stay connected to people this year while you turn down their offers and requests.

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