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How to Say ‘No’ When ‘No’ Is What You Want to Say

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Do a good job of saying “no” to things you don’t want, and you’ll get more chances to say “yes” to things you do want. Try these tips.

how to say no
Getting Clients

Who knows why we do it, but most of us tend to say “yes” to things when we ought to say “no.” You know the drill: Can you bring cupcakes to the party? Sure. I’m jammed, can you handle this TRO for me before 5 p.m.? Well, OK. Come speak at our conference? Of course!

Before you realize it, your calendar is full through next August and you’re feeling frustrated, used and quite cranky.

Tips on How to Say No

You aren’t a starving puppy.

Pups eat everything put down for them, assuming there may never be any again. You are an intelligent and successful professional with ample opportunities. In fact, if you do a bang-up job of saying “no” to things you don’t want, you’ll probably get more chances to say “yes” to things you do want. Try these tips and your calendar will be your friend again.

  1. Be respectful. Listen carefully and don’t interrupt the asker. Respect the person’s request, then respect your own right to decline.
  2. Make it simple. Often when we are trying on new ways of behaving, we overcompensate or are clumsy. Don’t raise your voice, don’t get upset, and for goodness sake, don’t ask for permission or forgiveness. A simple well-modulated “no” followed by a “thank you” will do.
  3. Don’t feel you must explain or justify. Perhaps your reason for declining is personal or just something you don’t wish to discuss with a stranger. Try “I’m not able to do that,” or “Sorry I can’t help you,” or “Not this time, thank you.”
  4. Assign responsibility for your refusal to something else. “That sounds very nice, unfortunately, my calendar is booked solid.” Now it’s your calendar’s fault. Silly calendar!
  5. Stand firm. Avoid engaging in discussion or negotiation. If you know from the start that this is something you neither want nor need but the requester pursues you, simply change the subject. Or say, “I’m sorry I have to go.” Otherwise, you’re in for a long discussion and may, ultimately, be persuaded to accept against your better judgment.
  6. Refer, refer, refer. If it’s a speaking engagement or another equally flattering request, but not really well-suited to your plans, suggest others who might fill the opening well — and then add, “Please say I sent you.” (Might as well get some brownie points!)
  7. Be very clear with yourself about when to say “no.” If the request is something that will benefit you, those you care about, your colleagues, social group, or a special cause, there is likely a reason to say “yes.” But how can you really know unless you know who and what you are working toward? Doing just any old speaking engagement is not smart business development. However, if you’re a corporate employment lawyer and you’re invited to address 200 senior human resources executives, then you’ll want to find a way to make it work. Having a clear plan (business, family, social) will make it easier to decline invitations.

If all else fails, use the multipurpose response.

It works in nearly all situations. Smile a gracious smile and say, “Not just now, thank you.”

Illustration ©

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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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