5 steps to saying “no” (without feeling guilty)

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a situation you didn’t like because you were too afraid to say “no”? It might’ve been a social event, a favor, a work obligation, or a plethora of other things that feel too uncomfortable to decline.

If you’ve ever struggled to say “no,” whether it’s in your personal life or at work, you’re not alone.

The ability to say “no” confidently isn’t something people are born with – like public speaking or negotiation, it’s a skill that’s developed with practice. With the right framework, anyone can start becoming more confident in this skill and reap its benefits.

This article covers how to say “no” without feeling guilty in 5 simple steps, so you can reclaim your time, become more confident, and improve your relationships with others.

I made a video that covers these steps in a little more detail, check it out! Otherwise, we’ll cover similar ideas below.


When is it important to know how to say “no”?

Saying “no” was something I struggled with – that is, until I started working as a freelancer in the film industry.

This new career forced me to make decisions and say “no” much more often than I was used to. As a freelancer, I was forced to practice the skill much more often. I quickly found that saying “yes” to the wrong project meant being unavailable for projects that were potentially more interesting, provided better growth opportunities, or paid more. Learning to say “no” was one of the reasons I was able to accelerate my career much faster than some of my peers who had started at the same time as me.

Once I started getting better at saying no in the context of work, I also became more confident in saying it in social situations. I found myself feeling happier with how I spend my time, setting boundaries with people who had been taking advantage of my timidness, and building better connections with friends because I could be honest about what I did and didn’t want.  

Think about the situations you might want to say “no” in your personal and professional life….

Social situations:

  • Getting asked to do favors you’re not comfortable with
  • Spending money on activities or events you don’t care for
  • Being asked out on a date by someone you’re not interested in
  • Feeling pressured to drink or do drugs
  • Getting sucked into conversations that leave you drained (like when someone is just offloading their problems on you or gossiping endlessly)

Work situations:

  • Getting pinged by coworkers when you’re trying to focus
  • Having extra responsibilities piled onto your plate when you already feel overtaxed
  • Being given unreasonable deadlines
  • Your manager assuming you can work overtime without asking
  • Your team not respecting your work-life balance
  • Getting placed on projects that don’t align with your long-term goals

This is far from a comprehensive list, but it gets you thinking about all the situations you might feel too uncomfortable saying “no” in.

You might have a hard time saying “no” to these things because you think it would make you selfish. That’s totally normal! We have an evolutionary need to be accepted and liked. No wonder it feels so unnatural and even stressful to disagree with people in our close circles. 

Saying “no” doesn’t make you selfish. It doesn’t mean you’re mean-spirited.

Saying “no” makes you more honest with others so that you can show up as your best self. It protects your time and energy from being swallowed up by obligations and social pressures.

The upsides of saying “no”

Saying no is a skill that creates a ripple effect on many areas of your life. When you learn how to say “no” to people without feeling guilty, you:

Improve your relationship with yourself by…

  • Reclaiming your time and energy and feeling more in charge of your life
  • Having better clarity on your goals and values
  • Freeing up to say “yes” to things that matter to you
  • Becoming less susceptible to peer pressure or people pleasing
  • Showing up with more intention and energy in both your work and personal life
  • Increasing your self-esteem, confidence, and self-respect

Saying “no” also helps improve your relationships with others by…

  • Setting healthy boundaries with friends, family members, and work
  • Providing feedback for other to understand how to help you
  • Building more honest relationships
  • Building trust in others because they see you being authentic
  • Empowering others to speak up for themselves and be honest about what they need

When you speak honestly, you take care of yourself so that you show up more authentically in the world. When you show up authentically, you end up bringing more of your own unique contributions to those around you.

Want to develop this skill? Read on.


The 5-step process to saying “no” (minus the guilt)

1. Remember your reason

Right now, think about why it’s important for you to be able to say no.

There are plenty of upsides to learning how to say no. Figure out what’s the most important reason for you.

Don’t skip this part. Saying “no” to people is uncomfortable. It’s much more tempting to stay in our comfort zone, to constantly agree with others at the expense of our well-being. If you want to overcome that hurdle, you need to have a “why” that is strong enough to outweigh the desire to proceed as usual.

What’s the most important reason for you to be able to say “no”? Why does this matter to you? How will your life improve when you start being the type of person that’s comfortable enough to speak up for themselves?

Write your “why” down in your phone. Next time you find yourself tempted to agree with someone or do something you’re not comfortable with, open that note and reread it. Remember why you want to do this in the first place, and the rest will come with less resistance.

2. Take your time

Let the person you’re talking with know that you will get back to them with an answer.

Buying yourself some time and getting some space gives you a chance to do two things:

  1. Think through your decision in a lower-pressure environment
  2. Figure out how to say no (if that’s what you decide)

This may feel uncomfortable if you’re used to agreeing with people right away (lookin’ at you, people pleasers). You don’t need to respond to all requests and invitations right away. It’s ok to ask for some time before getting back to someone.

This can be as simple as “Let me get back to you on that” or “I need to check on some things before I can commit.”

Don’t over-explain. They don’t need to know your entire thought process. Let them know you need a little time to get back to them, and leave it at that. Give a time that you’ll follow up by, especially if the request is time-sensitive.

If you can, get some space from the situation. Walk to another room or step away from your computer. When you physically distance yourself from your worry, you give yourself a chance to get some perspective and think clearly, rather than just reacting.

This isn’t an excuse to dilly-dally or procrastinate – get back to them as soon as you can. But know you don’t have to have an answer immediately.

3. Know your “no”

Once you’re in a place that you can think through your decision, if your gut is telling you “no,” figure out what kind of “no” it is.

It’s important to know what specifically is putting you off from the situation, so that you can communicate clearly and with conviction. Plus, it’ll help you understand what you are and aren’t willing to compromise on, or potentially come up with alternatives.

There two different flavors of “no:”

  • “No” to the timing
  • “No” to the situation (or just part of it)

“No” to the timing

Sometimes we have to say no because we have too much on our plate, the timing is bad, and taking on more would cause us undue stress. Maybe your manager asks you to do a presentation on a project you’re passionate about to your broader team, but you’re spread too thin to take on extra work this quarter. Or maybe a friend invites you to happy hour but you have plans later that night or just need some time to relax by yourself. It can even be your coworker pinging you to chat while you’re in the middle of focusing. 

In these situations, it’s often the case that we say “yes” instead of “not now, but later” because we don’t want to miss out on an opportunity we’re interested in, even though taking it on now would mean adding stress to our lives. It’s important to remember that in addition to “yes” and “no,” there are options like “sure, can we find a different time?”

“No” to the situation (or part of it)

Other times, we want to say no because the situation itself rubs you the wrong way, either in part of in full. This could be a close friend who makes you uncomfortable by constantly gossiping about another friend. It might be your boss asking to push up a deadline by a week, which would make you have to work over the weekend. It could be a family member regularly asking for last-minute rides to the airport, or a distant relative who only shows up when he needs help moving. Maybe your peers are pressuring you to drink more than you’re comfortable with.

Figure out what’s the real reason you’re opposed to the situation. Is someone crossing a line, like in the case of a friend constantly bad-mouthing another friend? Are they asking for too much, like the relative who seems to think it’s normal to demand you drop everything to help them with a favor on short notice? Are your boundaries being violated, like the coworker who messages you with requests outside of business hours? Is what’s being offered just not something you’re interested in, like a date with that friend of a friend you’ve always found creepy, or a social event you aren’t excited about?   

Identify what specifically bothers you about the situation. Are there any alternate scenarios you would be comfortable with? For example, maybe you don’t mind driving your great aunt to the airport, but you need to know about it a week ahead of time and not the day before. Or maybe you’d like to help your coworker, but not outside of work hours.

It’s very possible that the whole situation rubs you the wrong way and that you wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole, even if some changes were made. That’s ok. The point here isn’t to convince yourself to do something by offering alternatives, it’s to know your own boundaries and what you are and aren’t willing to compromise on.

4. Communicate clearly

Once you’ve taken a moment to understand what you’re saying “no” to, you’ll have better clarity on your reasoning and more confidence in stating your grounds. Being internally clear on what you do and don’t want is already half the battle.

Now it’s time to do the thing and communicate!

Communicating “no” clearly comes down to three things: brevity, honesty, and tone.

Brevity

Keep it short! When you’re saying “no,” you can give as much or as little reason as you want. Most of us want to give some context, but we sometimes over-explain if we’re worried about the other person being disappointed. When we do this, we come off as less confident. Giving too much detail can also backfire by making it look like we’re trying to convince the other person of something (i.e. we’re making up reasons).

Share that you can’t make it, give a short reason why, and move on.

Honesty

Be honest about your limitations, and about what kind of “no” this is. If the timing doesn’t work for you because you need to take some time to yourself, say so. If a project is off-putting because you’d rather focus on a different area of the business, be honest.

Most people are understanding and want to help you feel comfortable. When you’re honest about what’s bothering you, you give others a better understanding of how to work with you. It’s feedback that they can incorporate in the future.

Be honest, but don’t be brutally honest. Sometimes we don’t want to do something because we just don’t like the person who’s asking. If that’s the case, you don’t necessarily have to say that to their face. Tell them you’re unavailable. No need to add reasons if the reasons will just cause drama.

Tone

Speaking with confidence and a sense certainty tells the other person that you are firm in your decision.

How do you convey a confident tone? Put a period at the end of your sentences.

If you’ve gotten all worked up and can’t remember what it feels like to speak confidently (don’t worry, I’ve been there), here’s a trick you can do. Go into a room by yourself, look in the mirror, and say the following out loud: “two plus two is four.”

Hear that conviction? That’s what it sounds like to be absolutely certain of something. Now, using the same tone, practice your “no” response.

5. End on a positive

End your “no” statement on a positive note, especially if this is a relationship that’s important to you. Remind them that even though you had to decline or enforce a boundary, that they matter to you and are appreciated.

This might be:

  • “…but thank you so much for thinking of me”  
  • “I really appreciate the invitation”
  • “Thank you for reaching out and including me”
  • “I hope we can work together soon”

If you have an alternative you’d like to propose, this would be a great time. Otherwise, if it was a hard pass, you can just leave it on a friendly note.


Now, I want to know from you:

What situations do you have a hard time saying no to? Leave a comment below and I’ll reply with my thoughts.

8 Networking Mistakes that are Keeping You Stuck

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Do you feel frustrated when you try to network? Maybe you put in all this effort to reach out to people, but no one responds. Or maybe you’ve met a few folks, but feel like you haven’t gotten any closer to finding a new job.

I’ve been there. A few years ago, I got laid off from my corporate job and decided to pursue my dream of working in the film industry. For a few months, it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. People wouldn’t reply to my emails, and the conversations I did have often left me at a dead end. Eventually, I realized the mistakes I was making and changed my approach to networking. I started getting more replies, better connections, and ultimately more meaningful work.

Networking can be tricky, and it doesn’t always come naturally. But it’s a necessary part of both starting your career and getting fulfilling work down the line; the more quality connections in your network, the more opportunities you have for growth throughout your career. Knowing how to network effectively allows you to not only progress your career, but also create meaningful relationships in your community.

In this guide, we’ll cover eight common networking mistakes people make when they’re trying to find a job or enter a new industry, and how to overcome them. If you hate networking, or feel like it just isn’t your thing, these are things you can do today to start getting better results.

Psst…I recently made a video that covers 6 of these networking mistakes… check it out!


Networking was essential to my success in a new industry

A few years ago, I got laid off from my project management job and decided to pursue my longtime dream of working in the film industry.

Networking is critical for working in the film industry because most crew members are freelancers. They get hired by different productions throughout the year and rely heavily on referrals from their network to get gigs.

But at the time, I knew nothing about the industry and didn’t really have connections in it. I had to start from scratch looking for work. So I emailed anyone I could find that worked in the film industry, seeing if they’d be open to telling me about their work.

For a while, most of my messages didn’t get replies. The people I did meet with were eager to talk with me, but I wasn’t getting much clarity on how to actually start getting hired.

Eventually, I got more specific about what I was trying to accomplish and tweaked my approach to networking. I stopped emailing just anybody who worked in the film industry and started focusing only on people who worked in the camera department. Instead of sending cold messages on LinkedIn, I started figuring out what platforms people are most likely to reply on.

Once I adjusted my approach to networking, I got more responses, made better connections, and got clarity about what I needed to do to get hired. I asked more specific questions, and got more specific answers. I started shadowing and getting some work in the camera department. I got my foot in the door; all that networking finally was finally paying off!

A year after I decided to go into the film industry, an overwhelming majority of my gigs were coming from – you guessed it – my network. Not only did I get regular camera department work, I actually had to turn down jobs because I was so busy.

Sure, there were other factors involved in my success – this was a busy production season, and I worked hard to earn my keep – but I wouldn’t have gotten past entry-level roles and climbed the ranks so quickly if it wasn’t for my network. Work ethic alone wouldn’t have gotten me to where I am today if it wasn’t for the people I met and built relationships with.

What blows my mind is that the people who ended up training me, hiring me, and referring me to jobs were complete strangers just months prior.

All in all, I reached out to over 200 people in 10 months. A lot of them didn’t reply, and some of the conversations I had felt like a dead end. But that’s OK, because ultimately I did meet the people that made all the difference.

In this article, I’m sharing what I learned while reaching out to some 200 people and through watching others network. My goal is to help you overcome these common networking mistakes so you can be more effective and get results faster than I did.

I did 100% of my networking over Zoom. Coffee chats are great, but video calls are much easier to schedule and thus more approachable (for both parties).

Mistake #1: Not being specific about what you want from networking

A lot of younger people who are getting into the workforce make this mistake. They talk to anyone who will give them the time of day, ask questions that are too broad, and end up getting a life story instead of specific insights. They don’t get anywhere with the conversation and walk away with no actionable takeaways or advice that’s too generic.

Most people want to help. But it’s hard for them to do so if you don’t give them a clear direction.

Instead: Make it easy for people to help you.

Get specific. Figure out the goal you’re trying to achieve and be clear on what specific questions you have.

Help people understand how they can best help you. When you reach out, tell them what you’re looking to learn from them specifically. Make it clear where you are in the process, what you’ve learned already, and what you’re looking to gain from the conversation.

If your goal is to learn more about an industry, what specifically are you trying to learn? Are you trying to figure out the typical timeline for promotions? The average income? The challenges people face? The overall job satisfaction? The expectations for work-life balance?

If your goal is to get hired, your questions should be more specific. You might ask people how they got their foot in the door, where the opportunities are now, or who they’d talk to if they were just starting out. You might ask who does the hiring, what skills you need to learn, or how to get hands-on experience.

Keep a running list of questions in your phone. Review it before you meet with people to help guide the conversation.

Take a page from Tom Cruise. Help the people you’re networking with help you.

Mistake #2: Not networking enough

People often stop networking before they’ve gotten the momentum needed to see any results. They get discouraged and stop trying because they aren’t getting responses when they reach out, or their conversations aren’t as fruitful as they’d hoped.

Instead: Realize networking is a numbers game

The truth is, a lot of the people you talk with won’t be able to help you much. You’ll realize that someone isn’t involved in the type work you’re looking to do, or they can’t articulate how they got to where they are, or their advice is too outdated. Frankly, some of your conversations might feel like a complete waste of time.

But there are people out there who do have answers to your questions, can make important introductions, and can become incredible mentors and friends. The more people you connect with, the greater your odds of meeting those who can help you on your journey.

Set aside time each week to reach out to at least 5 new people

Create a recurring block of time on your calendar to reach out to new people. Make it daily if you can. Set a goal to reach out to at least 5 new people each week.

Why 5 people a week? Let’s assume that some won’t reply. Of those that do respond, odds are, only a few will have the knowledge, resources, or connections to help you move forward.

Increase your odds of connecting with people who could make a difference in your journey by increasing the amount of people you reach out to.

Your ability to leverage your network depends directly on how large it is.
So grow that network.

Mistake #3: Not leveraging your existing network

It’s easy to underestimate your existing connections when you start networking for new opportunities. You might think the people you know can’t offer much if they themselves aren’t working in the field. Or you assume that if they had any way to help, you would’ve known about it by now.

But you don’t know what kind of knowledge is already within your existing network until you ask. If you’re like me, you’ve probably forgotten half the people you actually know!

When I looked closer at my existing network, I realized I already knew people who could help me. A dorm neighbor from college worked in the industry. A coworker from a previous job had his own video production company. A friend who had moved to another city introduced me to a filmmaker she knew in my area. Those are all people who helped me when I started exploring the film industry who were already in my existing circles.

Instead: Tell your existing connections about your new goals

Remember those goals and specific questions you clarified earlier? Share them to your socials. Post to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and wherever else you talk to people. Tell your existing network what you’re looking to do and ask them if they might be able to help.

Yes, you’ll inevitably need to make some cold calls when growing your network, especially if you’re going into a new field. But don’t discount the knowledge and connections of the people you already know.

Keep your existing network updated on what you’re looking to do next.

Mistake #4: Reaching out on mediums where people aren’t active

When you’re reaching out to new people, are you doing so on the platforms where they spend the most amount of time and are most likely to respond on?

I’m embarrassed by how many LinkedIn messages I sent to people who hadn’t posted on the site in years. Not surprisingly, most of them went unread and unanswered. I eventually realized that most people in the film industry don’t hang out on that platform, even if they have a profile.

Turns out, people in the film industry rely heavily on Facebook for their professional lives. They actively participate in industry-specific Facebook groups to ask questions, post listings for jobs, and share updates. Once I figured this out and started connecting to people via these groups, my networking skyrocketed.

Instead: Figure out where people are already spending time, and meet them there

This is going to vary by industry and demographic. In my case, Facebook turned out to be the best place to meet professionals, but people in your industry might be more active on LinkedIn or some other platform.

How do you figure out which platform people are most active on? Ask the people you network with where the conversations are happening. Pay attention to how active people are on different sites. If you’re not having luck on social platforms, see if people share their contact info on their websites or if there are professional databases you could leverage.


Mistake #5: Writing a brand new email to each person

If you’re writing a brand new email to every single person you reach out to, you’re not playing the numbers game. The more time it takes you to reach out to each person, the fewer people you end up connecting with, and the lower your odds of meeting the people who will make a difference. Not to mention, the more time you put into crafting an email, the more you risk feeling dejected if that person doesn’t reply.

When I was starting out, I’d spend 30+ minutes researching someone’s work and crafting an email. All that extra time spent didn’t actually result in more people responding. It just kept me from being able to reach out to more people at a faster rate. I would’ve been better off spending 15 minutes on an email and doubling my reach.

Instead: Create a reusable email template

Get more efficient. Instead of recreating the wheel every time, take some time to draft an email that you just have to tweak a little before sending.

I’m not saying copy and paste the same generic email every time – people can tell when you do this, and it’s gross. Draft a message that includes why you’re reaching out, who you are, what you’re hoping to get from a conversation, and an invitation to connect. Include a personalized note for each person before you send it (ex: “I noticed you do a lot of work abroad, I’d love to hear how you got into that”).

There’s no way I would’ve been able to reach out to 200 people in a year (and ultimately connect with the people who got me work) if I was starting from scratch every time.

Keep it short, keep it sweet. Use a template, add a few personalized touches, hit send, then move on.

Here’s a networking introduction template you can customize yourself:

“Hi [insert name], I hope this finds you well [or however you greet people]. I’m reaching out because [how you learned about them], and I’m looking to meet more people in [industry or company of interest].

My experience with the industry is [short sentence of your goal and where you are currently in the process]. I’d love to connect and hear more about [specific thing you want to learn]. Would you be open to [a Zoom meeting / phone call / getting coffee] sometime next week?”

One more thing: I know it’s tempting to try to learn a bunch of stuff about someone before sending that first email. Don’t spend more than 10 minutes looking up someone’s work before reaching out. If they respond and schedule a time to connect, then you can research their work to your heart’s content. But don’t over-prepare for a meeting before someone even agrees to it.

I sure hope this person isn’t drafting an email from scratch!

Mistake #6: Getting discouraged when people don’t respond

This one hits home for me. It’s so easy to get discouraged or angry when people don’t respond after we’ve spent the time and energy putting ourselves out there. It can make you want to give up networking. Worse, it can make you come off as bitter to the people you do end up talking to.

People are busy. Taking it personally won’t help you with what you’re trying to achieve.

Instead: Send a follow-up

It’s possible that someone saw your email and was distracted before they could respond, or they just didn’t see it because their inbox is slammed.

If you haven’t gotten a response, send a follow up a week later. It can be as simple as:

“Hi [insert name]! Just following up in case my message got buried. I’d love to connect and hear about [remind them of the specific thing you’re looking to learn from them]. Would you be open to [a Zoom meeting / phone call / getting coffee] sometime?”

It’s not a guarantee, but it’s worth a shot.

…and remember that no one owes you anything

Here’s some tough love that I had to give myself: people don’t owe you shit. Don’t start feeling entitled to someone’s time or expertise just because you made an effort to get to know them. The time and help people give is a gift, not a guarantee.

Besides, your goal isn’t to talk to every single person anyway. It’s to cast your net wide enough to increase the odds of meeting the right people. So keep networking.

This dude’s not giving up on networking, right? He knows nobody owes him sh*t and that networking is a numbers game. He’s just resting his eyes.

Mistake #7: Coming off as too eager or inauthentic

Sometimes we get so caught up in making a good impression that we come off too eager or inauthentic. We focus too much on asking about the perks, and don’t dig into the negative parts of a job or industry because we don’t want the other person to question our commitment. We think the more eager we come off, the more likely this person is to help (or employ) us.

People don’t like suck-ups. They can sense when someone is being disingenuous or trying to earn brownie points.

Instead: Quit idolizing the people you network with. Talk to them as equals.

You’re much better off being honest with people. If you’re concerned about an element of the industry or company (work-life balance, wages, leadership opportunities, etc.), don’t brush it under the table. Ask for people’s perspective on it.

First of all, this allows you to actually get insights on issues you’re concerned about so you can make better decisions.

Secondly, this establishes you as a peer in people’s minds. The connection we have with someone who’s trying desperately to win our affection is very different from the connection we have with someone we consider a friend or equal. People are much more likely to help the new friend than the kid who’s trying too hard to be liked.

Finally, being honest about your concerns makes people feel better about talking with you because they feel like they’ve actually helped you. They can be honest about their experiences instead of having to sugarcoat everything. They’ll be more satisfied knowing they’re helping you understand something, rather than just pandering to someone’s fantasy of the job.

Don’t try to be a Pollyanna. Be honest with people so they can actually help you.

Mistake #8: Not circling back with people you’ve met

The point of networking isn’t to meet everyone you possibly can. It’s to meet a good amount of people, and then build relationships with those who felt most impactful.

Yes, networking is a numbers game, but once you start meeting people who add significant value to your journey, don’t just breeze by them on the way to your next connection. Double down on those relationships.

If you met with someone who shared great advice, are you following back up with them? Are you continuing to use them as a resource, or did you treat that conversation was a one-and-done deal? Most importantly, have you thanked them?

Instead: Follow up with the people who helped you the most

When you meet with someone who is eager to help you and provides helpful direction, make a note to follow up with that person in the future. Let them know how things are going for you and what you were able to accomplish because of your conversation.

If it feels appropriate, ask them to connect again. If it’s been some time since you chatted and you have new questions for them, don’t be afraid to say so.

If someone helped you, make sure they understand how impactful their advice was. They provided you with something valuable, whether it was knowledge, actionable advice, or an introduction. The value you can provide in return is gratitude, and making this awesome person feel good knowing they’ve made a positive difference in someone’s life.

Networking is tricky. The right mindset makes all the difference.

Networking can often feel uncomfortable and awkward. It’s easy to forget why we’re doing it, or to feel disappointed when it’s not working in our favor.

Remember, the more people you can potentially connect with, the more likely you are to meet those that can make a difference. There are some incredible people out there who can become your mentors, advocates, and friends. That alone makes all the trial and error of networking worth it.

Get specific. Get efficient. But most importantly, get going.

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