Strategies for Saying No: When and How to Turn Down Opportunities
Learn how to step back from opportunities without closing doors.
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When I quit my job two years ago. I knew I had made the right choice for my career and myself. However, once the initial excitement passed, I was afraid that I would just sit in front of my computer 12 hours a day, five days a week, and no offers or opportunities would come my way.
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After spending a lot of sleepless nights worrying about landing clients, I dove into building my business and was thrilled to find that (luckily) my fears were unfounded. I worked hard, but the hard work seemed to pay off. The opportunities started rolling in, and I excitedly agreed to them all.
However, I realized very quickly that all of these yes's presented a problem that was the opposite of what I had expected. Instead of being thirsty for work, I was suddenly drowning in opportunities.
What I learned the hard way (writing articles until well past midnight for weeks at a time) is that while opportunities are great and often hard to come by, an equally important skill for entrepreneurs is learning how to discern between the opportunities that are worth pursuing and those that are not.
Here are some tricks I've picked up for learning when it's time to say no and how to go about saying it without closing doors.
1. Define what an ideal opportunity looks like.
Before you can hope to evaluate potential opportunities or relationships, you have to develop a standard against which to judge your options.
Late one night, during the period when I was absolutely flooded by clients, I found that the work I was doing for certain clients was much more tolerable than what I was doing for others. It wasn't so much the nature of some projects that made them so tedious. What I found myself dreading was the work that I instinctively felt was not advancing my career. In short, one of my earliest mistakes was not defining clear goals and objectives. Without this clear vision, I found it impossible to identify the types of opportunities that were worth taking.
The first step in understanding when to say no, then, is having a clear conception of what your ideal project and/or client looks like, then judging all opportunities against that model.
Obviously, no client or project will live up to this idealized version, but having an understanding of what you are looking for can help determine an answer to the next question.
2. Understand if an opportunity has potential.
Once you have identified what your ideal opportunity looks like, you can use that definition as a rubric to analyze the value of the projects, clients and relationships you're presented with. Having that clear idea allows you to determine whether that contact you met at last week's networking event has the potential to become that client.
This might seem ruthless, but your time is valuable and it can be easily wasted by starting down a road that will ultimately lead to nowhere. On the other hand, taking this additional step ensures that you don't shut out an opportunity that may not look ideal at first glance, but has the potential to turn into a much better situation down the road.
Related: Breaking Up With a Client: What to Say
3. Take the opportunity litmus test: What will moving forward entail?
If an opportunity seems less than ideal but could have potential down the road, this is the final question to ask.
Sure, an opportunity may have all the potential in the world, but if it is going to consume the lion's share of your time or resources, it still may not be worth it. Conversely, an opportunity might not have a lot of potential, but if exploring that option entails just five minutes of your time, turning it down may be unwise.
Combining these simple questions can allow you to quickly and systematically size up an opportunity's potential and determine whether to explore it or respond to the client with that dreaded word "no."
4. Learn good strategies and tactics for saying "no."
While the method outlined above might make clear what to say no to, actually saying it will never be easy. Turning someone down might be hard, but I've found a few strategies and tactics that make it less emotionally taxing and time-consuming. Read on.
5. Learn from success, then replicate and automate.
We've all had to say no plenty of times in both a professional and personal context. Unfortunately, it is just part of living. But not all no's are equal. There are times where I definitely could have said no more gracefully, and times where I felt like things went rather well.
In my professional life I've found it useful to learn from both the good and the bad, and to extract the core components of an ideal rejection for a variety of situations. So, once I write down a generalized rejection response, I create room for personal details, then save it as a "canned response" in Gmail. (Time magazine has a great guide for setting these up.)
I find that saving these responses allows me to address opportunities I'm not necessarily interested in pursuing, in a timely and efficient manner. Oftentimes, saying no becomes much harder when you let the request wait.
Being able to handle these situations quickly yet gingerly makes the process much more pleasant for everyone involved.
6. Ask questions before agreeing to anything.
I can't tell you how many times I've agreed to a seemingly innocuous request and had it consume much more time than it should have. "A cup of coffee" has a way of turning into an impromptu marketing Q&A if you don't properly set expectations beforehand.
Just because you respond with a question about someone's request doesn't obligate you to say yes. In fact, asking questions is a vital part of employing the methodology from the first half of this post. If you receive a vague request, don't hesitate to ask questions until you can evaluate the potential of the opportunity.
After asking questions, you may discover that this client/project could actually be worth your time. On the other hand, forcing the sender to get more specific about his or her inquiry may reveal an opportunity that is less than ideal, in which case you'll be armed with your handy canned responses to let down the client easily and politely.
Related: How to Know When to Say 'No' to a New Opportunity
7. Remove "free" from the equation.
This might sound cynical, but a lot of people interested in working with me are interested only because they think they can get something for free. For some reason, people seem to think that consulting is free until they see results; or they believe that they can avoid paying if they're only "picking your brain."
This illuminating video from the always excellent Marie Forleo brings up an analogy: The analogy compares the mentality I describe to walking into a store and grabbing a bunch of clothes without paying. You would never do that, but people for some reason think that they can do something similar with your ideas and expertise. This filter for evaluation actually quite nicely fits the methodology I highlighted earlier. No matter how loosely you define your ideal client, chances are that one of the nonnegotiable criteria is that he or she is paying you.
If someone seeking your time or expertise suddenly hesitates when you bring money into the conversation (don't even ask for it outright; just mention it), then that is about as clear a sign as you could ask for saying "no."
8. Focus on what's important.
When researching this article, I came across reams of articles and resources telling entrepreneurs and businesspeople how to seek out opportunities, make opportunities happen or pursue leads. With all of this emphasis on making things happen and constantly doing, doing, doing, saying no can be stressful. However, as I have hopefully shown, learning when and how to say "no" is as important as seeking out the "yes."
Or, as Steve Jobs put it more eloquently: "It's only by saying 'no' that you can concentrate on the things that are really important."
Related: Why 'No' is the Most Important Word You'll Ever Say