By Joanne Vitali, PCC, MBA 

A question came up during a recent webinar of mine that got me thinking. The female questioner wanted to know how to say “no” politely – in a way that wasn’t rude and didn’t hurt the other person’s feelings.

I wondered, “Do men struggle with this?” I’m guessing they might consider it, but not to the extent that we women agonize over it. We are expected to be so darn nice. God forbid we step out of that norm and come off as not-so-nice. We find ourselves constantly walking a tightrope balancing between being seen as too assertive or too passive.

Studies unfortunately confirm our fears. We must be both competent and liked to be considered confident and influential at work. Our concern is real. For men, being liked doesn’t matter.

I came up with five simple ways that can help you say no with nicely and politely – and yes, maintain your balance on the tightrope. Here are a few options to help you to stand your ground while maintaining that nice persona.

1) The full plate.

If you’re way too busy to take on one more thing, let them know you’re completely booked and that you simply have no time to fit what they’re asking into your schedule.

I’m sorry, I’d love to help, but my schedule is crazy today/this week/this month and there’s no way I can fit this in.

2) The sleep-on-it.

If you’re not sure you can fulfill the request or if you even want to do it, or if you’re dealing with someone who has a habit of being pushy, buy yourself time to think about what they’re asking of you. Then, get back to them on your terms.

Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.

3) The boomerang.

Are you super busy? Or maybe in the middle of something? Ask the person to come back to you later on when you have more time to listen to and consider their request.

I’m in the middle of a few things right now. Can you please ask me again in a couple of hours/days/weeks? I’ll be better able then to consider what you’re asking.

4) The counter offer.

If you can’t or don’t want to agree to the person’s request for whatever reason, but you’d still really like to help them out, make a counter offer for a lesser or different commitment that works better for you.

I’m sorry, I can’t help you move on Sunday. But I CAN come by for a few hours to help you pack on Friday night. Does that work?

5) The firm “no.”

The simplest way to say “no” is to simply…say “no!” Be direct and let the person know that what they’re asking just doesn’t work for you. You’ll be surprised how often people will respect a firm, direct “no.”

No, I’m sorry, I can’t.

If you feel compelled, you can add:

I just can’t make it a priority right now.

No explanation is needed. You don’t have to defend your priorities.

As you practice saying “no,” you’ll find that it gets easier and easier. Like any skill, it takes practice. Give yourself time to learn it.

The payoff is that you’ll have more time for yourself and the things that are most important to you. Not only will you enjoy a boost of self-respect, but you will also come across as confident and influential.

Joanne Vitali is the Geek Girl coach. A former nuclear engineer and NASA astronaut trainer, she coaches STEM women to attain and strengthen their rightful leadership roles. Her mission is to achieve gender parity, and she looks forward to the day when 50% female senior leadership in corporations is an everyday thing. She relishes in helping all Geek Girls own their brilliance. 

Originally published on

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