Doing “No” Better

saying no better illustrated by a big red buttontl;dr re: saying “no” better

  • Sometimes the right response to a request is “No.”
  • Maybe “Yes” and “No” are the wrong words, or the wrong responses, particularly if you’re trying to initiate a conversation.
  • I’m piloting an interactive workshop on the topic. Great for communities of practice, and centers of excellence. Remote meet-ups. If you’d like to learn more, get in touch.

Deeper dive

So how do we learn to say “no” better? Below are a few guidelines as well as some specifics for delivering the graceful “no.”

And remember, “No” is a complete sentence. (ty, Annie Lamont!) Sometimes it may be the most graceful way to respond.

In his 2014 book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less author Greg McKeown provides a vast number of ways to approach doing no better:

Separate The Decision From The Relationship

“When people ask us to do something, we can confuse the request with our relationship with them. Sometimes the two seem so interconnected, we forget that denying the request is not the same as denying the person. Only once we separate the decision from the relationship can we make a clear decision and then separately find both the courage and the compassion to communicate it.”

Saying “No” Gracefully Doesn’t Have To Mean Using The Word No

McKeown provides a variety of ways of refusing someone clearly and politely without actually using the word no.

  • “I am flattered that you thought of me but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth”
  • “I would very much like to but I’m overcommitted”

As McKeown says: Remember That A Clear “No” Can Be More Graceful Than A Vague Or Noncommittal “Yes”

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a vague or noncommittal “yes” situation, a clear “I am going to pass on this” – while initially disappointing – can be far better than being strung along with a noncommittal answer like “I will try to make this work” or “I might be able to” only to be let down at the last minute. “Being vague is not the same as being graceful, and delaying the eventual ‘no”’ will only make it that much harder— and the recipient that much more resentful.” (See: Say, Mean, Do: The Language of Commitment

Focus On The Trade-Off

McKeown continues: The more we think about what we are giving up when we say “yes” to someone, the easier it is to say “no.” If we have no clear sense of the opportunity cost— in other words, the value of what we are giving up— then it is especially easy to fall into the nonessential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done. We can’t. A graceful “no” grows out of a clear but unstated calculation of the trade-off.

The “No” Repertoire

The reality is that all of us won’t need to say “no” just occasionally. To consistently say “no” with grace, then, it helps to have a variety of responses to call upon. Below are a few general responses we can put in our “no” repertoire.

  1. The awkward pause. Instead of being controlled by the threat of awkward silence, own it. Use it as a tool. When a request comes to you (obviously this works only in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before delivering your verdict. Or if you get a bit bold, simply wait for the other person to fill the void.
  2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). “I am consumed with xyz right now 🙂 But I would love to help once that is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the day/next week/the month.” E-mail is also a good way to start practicing saying “no but ” because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft your “no” to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find that the distance of e-mail reduces the fear of awkwardness.
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” Doing so gives you the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply – rather than be rushed into a “yes” when asked.
  4. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?”

Product Owners

There’s a wonderful video by Henrik Kniberg where he explores the role of the Product Owner. In it he makes the point that the most important word that a PO can use is “No.” Sure it can be tempting to say “Yes” to every request, to pretend that things are always feasible or easy. But a “No” is important: “No” implies that trade-off decisions need to be made on the part of the customer or the organization’s leadership. One powerful word leads to thinking, discussion, and decision-making.


“No” is a very powerful word on teams. For example:

  • If their Product Owner expects them to deliver more than their capacity
  • If anyone asked them to deliver faster and it would violate their Definition of Done agreements
  • If a Team Member continues to “go it alone” and refuses to collaborate as a team


Coaches, Scrum Masters, Delivery Teams, and Leaders at every level need to do”No” better.

I’m piloting an interactive workshop on Doing No Better. If you’re interested, get in touch.

Resources for the Journey


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