Your friend asks for a loan. Your cousin asks for a business referral. Your neighbor asks you to donate to a charity. Your coworker asks for your help with a project that shouldn’t really be your problem.
It can be uncomfortable to turn down unwanted requests from people close to you—it even can poison a relationship. Some people simply swallow hard and say yes to such requests to avoid these unpleasant consequences.
The trouble is, saying yes to unwanted requests can have unpleasant consequences all their own. It could cost you time or money that you really can’t spare or mean that you must do things not in line with your beliefs. Saying yes could lead to similar requests being made in the future. And in the long run, it can damage relationships just as deeply as saying no.
Example: Loaning money to a friend could ruin the relationship if that friend doesn’t pay you back.
Here’s how to minimize the risk for hurt feelings or damaged relationships when you must reject a request. Keep in mind that the art of good etiquette is coming up with a response that is not hurtful and doesn’t destroy your integrity.
A friend, relative or coworker could be especially insulted or embarrassed by a quick rejection—it sends the message that you didn’t even consider the request worthy of consideration. Let the person know what your answer is likely to be, but ask for a few minutes, hours or days to consider the request. Stress that you need this time because of your positive feelings for the person making the request.
Examples: “I normally say no to requests such as these automatically, but because I consider you a very close friend, I’m going to give your request some thought.” Or “I don’t think there’s any way I’m going to be able to do that, but out of respect to you, I’m going to mull it over. I’ll let you know by tomorrow.”
If an answer is needed very quickly, still take five to 10 seconds to mull it over before saying no. Use this time to come up with a way to let this person down gently—more on that below.
People sometimes find it so hard to say no to friends that their nos accidentally come out as maybes or even yeses. When the time comes to give your answer, be clear from the outset that you are saying no.
Examples: Polite but unambiguous opening lines for rejections include, “I’m sorry, I have to say no” or “I just can’t do it.”
Remind yourself that the person wouldn’t have asked if he/she didn’t feel close to you—and follow up your clear rejection by expressing gratitude for that closeness. Say something along the lines of, “It means a lot to me that our relationship is close enough that you can come to me with this request. I’m really sorry I can’t come through for you.”
In truth, you probably are not grateful for the request—you actually might be upset with your friend for putting you in an awkward position. But expressing gratitude should help your friend get over any embarrassment that he/she might be feeling about the situation, which reduces the odds of long-term damage to the relationship.
Exception: If you reject a friend’s request that you make a donation to a charity and/or sign a petition, there is no need to say anything to help this friend overcome embarrassment. People tend to feel good about themselves—not embarrassed—when they make requests on behalf of causes they believe in. Instead say something like, “It’s wonderful that you’re supporting a good cause…”
If possible, provide a brief explanation for the rejection—one that does not reflect negatively on the person making the request.
Among the options…
Explain that the request does not fit a system you have in place or rules you must follow. This makes the rejection seem less personal.
• A friend asks you for a business reference. You might say that your employer has a rule barring employees from providing references. (Many companies have this rule.)
• A friend asks to stay with you for a month. You might say that your condo board has a rule against guests staying that long.
• A relative asks for a donation to charity. You might say that you make all of your charitable donations to a small number of nonprofits whose administrative expenses you track closely.
• A friend asks you to add him to your LinkedIn contacts. You might say that you have a policy of adding only people with whom you have worked on multiple occasions.
Blame your own limits. This sends the message that you truly would like to help but can’t.
Examples: A friend asks for a loan. If you don’t have room in your budget, say so. If you had a bad experience loaning to a friend before, say that.
Note that you already have done quite a bit to help. This way you’re not saying no, but rather that your yeses have reached their limit.
Example: You are asked to chair a committee that you already have chaired two years in a row. You could mention the earlier service, then say, “It’s time for me to let someone else have his turn.”
Is there a way that you can say no but still provide some form of assistance that you do find palatable? If so, mention this.
Offer your time, knowledge or network rather than your money or possessions. Examples: A friend asks you to buy cookies to support her child’s Girl Scout troop. You could say that you don’t eat cookies (or that you already bought cookies from someone else’s child), but you would be happy to ask people you know if they are interested. A friend asks to borrow your pickup truck to move a bulky item. You could say that you don’t like to loan out your vehicle, but that if the trip is local, you would be willing to do the driving.
Offer to help find someone else who can help. Example: A neighbor asks for your assistance with a median-strip beautification project. Perhaps you can provide an introduction to someone else in the neighborhood who enjoys gardening.
Offer to reevaluate the rejection in the future. Example: A friend asks for a donation to his favorite charity. You say no, you already have made your donations for the year—but add that you will include this charity among the group of nonprofits you will consider in future years.
Even if your alternative is not accepted, making the offer sends the message that you do care.