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How to Say No in a Nice Way

Is Our Fear of Disappointing Others Creating a Culture of "Maybe"?

How many times have you responded to an invitation with: "I will definitely try to come," "If I can make it, I will," or "Yes, I will be there" (but you know you won't)? Admittedly, I do this, too. There have been days where I've agreed to attend a breakfast summit or a coffee date, make it home in time for my kid's game, and show up at a dinner party later that night. The optimistic, ambitious me wants to do all these things and not disappoint anyone; the exhausted, real me just wants to skip the dinner and pull the covers over my head.

In our #imsobusy world, it's become clear that people are afraid to say "no." We want to do it all, and our ability to text and cancel at the last minute is creating a culture where "maybe" reigns; where we leave everyone in a constant cloud of uncertainty. As no-shows become expected and doors are open everywhere, commitment loses meaning. It may feel easier to say "I'll try" than "no," but it's actually more hurtful.

It may feel easier to say "I'll try" than "no," but it's actually more hurtful.

And it's not just happening in our social world.

A founder I know was lamenting the fundraising process. Yes, she had to deal with the infamous Silicon Valley culture and blatant gender discrimination, but what surprised her most were the investors who ghosted her. Just like in online dating, these investors courted her — they were hooked on the idea, built up excitement, spent time with her, and then poof — they were gone. There was no more follow-up and emails went unanswered. She was professionally dumped and had no idea why.

Another founder I know had a term sheet signed and then the investor simply disappeared. This wasn't the first time it had happened to her — and it wouldn't be the last.

Why has ghosting become acceptable in life and business? Are people that callous? Potentially. But I think it's actually a real fear of disappointing others — including ourselves. Those investors led my founder friend on. If her business wasn't the right fit for them, that's fair. But own it. Tell her. Don't leave her anxiously waiting and hoping for a deal.

Here's what I've learned: you can still be nice and say "no."

Many times, there are things you genuinely would love to do that would be great for your career or for the happiness of your family, whether it's a networking dinner or volunteering at a school function. We all face that. Between work, family, friends, and philanthropy — we are pulled in many directions. The secret is learning how to deliver a "kind no" that keeps the door open in a positive way. Try this phrase: "Not right now." Say you're asked to join your town's political committee; you want to do this, it's important to you, but you know in your heart you just don't have the time to devote to it. Say, "I would love to, but I can't right now. Can we talk about a way that we could work together in the future?"

You've said "no," but you're clear about why and indicated there is a chance that "no" could turn to "yes." But not now. There's no uncertainty. There are no mixed messages.

Another tactic: find the sweet spot between "yes" and "no." Requests for your time, energy, or expertise often seem like they require a definitive answer, but there's room between those two options. If you're invited to an event and can't make it but you really want to support this person, ask if there are other ways you can be helpful. Could you post about it on social media? Could you pass the invite on to someone else?

For me, as a startup investor, I am constantly fielding requests from entrepreneurs. I could spend my entire day in meetings! And while there's nothing I love more than helping out founders, I've had to create filters to help me say "no." If someone asks to meet with me yet the business isn't in my area, I say "no" to the meeting but "yes" to make an introduction or give feedback on a pitch deck. I've learned to be honest about what I can take on.

As hard as it can feel to disappoint someone, you won't if you deliver a "kind no." Remember this: it's better to say "no" than to do a bad job; it's better to say "no" than to leave a door open for constant wonder; it's better to say "no" than to ruin a relationship; it's better to say "no" than to ghost.

Fran Hauser is a media exec, startup investor, and longtime advocate for women and girls. Her first book, The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate, came out in April 2018.

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