Save. Spend. Splurge.

How to say ‘No’ to people

I got this as an Ask Sherry question but it turned into a post because it was way too long.

I have a really hard time saying ‘No’ to people.

What do you say to people who ask or expect you to do things for them for free?

I had a really hard time with this in my school days whenever people wanted me to take over their part of the project since they were ‘busy’ even though I was, too.

You know, this reminds me a lot of my experience in high school although mine was more being an obsessive, perfectionist micromanager so it annoyed me when people did a half-assed job and I’d just run them down and take over the entire thing.

On the one hand, it built leadership, on the other hand, I was always working which also had its silver lining because I became demonically efficient and fast which then worked to my disadvantage again because people would say “But you do it so quickly“.

On another, deeper, subconscious level, I also found it hard to say “No” if people asked me to do things because I was quiet and shy back then, melting into the background, and if anyone paid the slightest bit of attention to me (especially the more outgoing, friendlier and/or popular kids), it was kind of a thrill. Looking back, I guess it’s human nature to want to be liked, no matter who you are. No one sets out feeling like they want to NOT be liked.


I say this, because I would first suggest taking some time to consider why you can’t say “No” to people.

Is it because you want to be liked?

Is it because you feel like you don’t want to let them down?

Do you fear as though you will lose your job/be kicked out of whatever it is?

Once you nail down why, you will be able to say ‘No’ a lot easier. Also, start working on getting over those fears or at least learning how to recognize when it does you harm rather than good.

I love the feeling of the adrenaline rush from the fear of a deadline or that I can’t let the team down (I think it comes from my days of playing online in team role-playing games and because I’m just a type A freak), but if it takes over my life and my health, or jeopardizes my own priorities and deliverables, then that’s going too far.

(Unless of course, it really is a life-or-death situation, like if you don’t hand the scalpel to the surgeon instead of doing something else, then your stuff really is less important in the grand scheme of life.)


Now, to actually say “No” in practice is a lot harder even if you know the why.

Here are some tricks I have used in the past, with some simulated conversations.

The Direct No: Just say it

Colleague: Hey, could you do A for me because I really need to get B done?

You: Sorry, no. I’m really too busy right now with C.

Why it works:

Some people take to this well, others do not. Only you will know who can or cannot take it and won’t use it personally against you and hold a grudge.

Sometimes just being honest, is the best policy, but I find this direct “No” takes a little more practice.

The Timed No: Not right now

This takes a little more finesse however, you need to know how critical A is for them and their deadlines.

Colleague: Hey, could you do A for me because I really need to get B done?

You: Sure. I need to get C done first though, so I can’t help you with that until ‘tomorrow / next week / after C is done’.

Why it works:

You didn’t say “No” which isn’t an outright refusal, but you basically told them: “Not right now, later”.

Most people can’t wait. If they are willing to wait and there’s no real deadline on their stuff because they’re just avoiding work as lazy bums, then live up to your promise of when you said you’d do it, and try another tactic next time on them because it’s clear this one won’t work.

The Redirect: Give them work to do in return

Colleague: Hey, could you do X for me because I need to really get Y done?

You: Sure, I’ll take X over for you if you take Z from me so I can get my stuff done too.

Why it works:

No one likes getting back work in return when asking to offload work.

Asking once or twice, and then doing it to them as a favour, is a nice, friendly thing to do that engenders good relationships at work, but when it starts getting abused, or they’re just doing it because they can, then start pushing back in the same, friendly manner.

Do this a couple of times, and it’ll soon dawn on them how they’re not really saving any time or offloading any work by asking you to do it.

The Superior Redirect: Ask them what your priorities are

This takes a little more finesse if it is your manager or boss asking because you kind of feel like you can’t say “No” because you want to be a Superstar.

Boss: Hey could you do Y for me because I really need to get Z done?

You: Sure, I’ll take over Y, but does that mean I should stop working on X?

Why it works:

It forces them to see that you have priorities along with the limits of time, and if they want you do choose between those priorities, they have to make an executive decision about whether or not they want to be the ones responsible for pulling you off those duties.

If your boss then decides, yeah, Y is way more important than your X duty, then by all means, fall in and follow their orders (unless they forgot that “X” is critical to the whole thing, in which case you should remind them gently — Okay, so if I don’t do “X”, who will take over because it is critical to Approval P?).


As for doing things for free, this is a bit trickier to answer.


I do stuff for free all the time because not everything can be quantified into dollars, but converts into insubstantial goodwill instead.

I do free things for potential projects, for clients, for friends. I do it with the expectation that it is because it will pay off in some other way (more friendship, a stronger bond, perhaps more projects or good word of mouth).

Think about what it will cost you to do this. If it costs you nothing to answer it, or less than half an hour, then do it.

If halfway through, you discover it will take up too much of your time that you really don’t have, you can politely say:

“I managed to get this far, but I am finding that I need to spend more time on this than I expected. I could use my free time at night to do X, and it will cost Y to do it. What do you think?”

If it will advance your career or have someone owe you a big favour, or just because you’re good friends with them, then do it with a full heart unless of course, it cuts into your health, sanity, work, etc.


I once went on a prospect for a contract, I spent over a day preparing documentation, not to mention another half day driving there and back to pitch. All of this, was for free with the expectation that I would be hired to then execute the project.

I get there, I pitch hard, and everything seems to go well.

I talk to the prospecting company whom I was partnering with before I leave, and I get a sense that she thought there would be more follow-up work to be done and maybe a few more meetings.

Immediately, I saw the writing on the wall (e.g. this project will never take off, they’re cheap, think they know it all and can do it on their own even though they have no idea what they’re doing which was pretty clear when I met the potential project manager of the team who took an immediate dislike to me because I was speaking in English. Also, I had a distinct feeling for him, it was because I was a young woman and not some old white-haired man, but obviously couldn’t prove anything.)

So without saying what I really thought about the whole thing just in case it was still going to pan out, I politely tell them in so many words that I did this ONE meeting and prospect for free, but anything after this, would be billable either to her company directly if they wanted to retain my services to help them pitch, or to the client for the signed project.

I got a bit of a side eye because she didn’t think someone like me would have a backbone of steel, seeing as I agreed to do this in the first place, so I would be an easy pushover for more FREE work.

That day, I get an email at the end saying: “They want more information, and details on how exactly you will do it, step-by-step.

I wrote back a one sentence email saying: Sure. I’d be happy to tell them how to do it in detail. My billable rate for this is $Y per hour.


I am not going to work for free and tell them how to do it without hiring me just to “win” the contract.

How stupid do you think I am? I may be young but I wasn’t born yesterday.

I never heard from them again.


Don’t commit yourself to anything and be upfront about it being NOT FOR FREE.

If someone is asking you to do something with the expectation that it is for free, don’t say you’ll do it. Nod and smile, and if you end up getting caught in your enthusiasm or get wrangled into agreeing without the topic of pay coming up, then say:

Sure I’d love to do this. It’s going to cost $X. I can have a contract out to you to sign ASAP. When do you want to start?


Yes, this sounds fantastic. I’m going to need $Y up front and $Z when it’s done. If you agree, I’ll have the contract drawn up.

Don’t get swept along.

If it happens too many times, then say as a warning: The next time you need this, I’m going to start charging.


You don’t have to help or save everyone, unless it is a matter of life-and-death. It is NOT YOUR JOB.

It is THEIR job.

They are paid to do it.

If you see a woman on the ground, bleeding, you call 911 and step in.

If you see a man on the floor in the throes of a seizure, you immediately call 911 and lay him on his left, make sure he has nothing in his mouth, fold up something for his head, don’t hold him down and time how long he seizes so you can tell the paramedics who arrive.

If someone you know is just being lazy because he doesn’t want to do a lick of work and yet take all the credit for it, you use one of the tactics above.

1 Comment

  • raluca

    To be a professional athlete, somebody has to pay you to run (or jump, or dance) otherwise you’re not a professional athlete.
    To be a professional writer, somebody has to pay you to write otherwise you just have a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way, but then you should not have other people setting up deadlines for you.
    To be a professional anything, lawyer, consultant, doctor, etc. means that somebody is paying you to do something. Otherwise, you’re not a professional and people rarely respect non-professionals in the workplace.

    Now, if the people who ask you to do free stuff are in a work setting, then they likely don’t respect you very much and the more you allow them to get away with it, the less they will respect you. Sherry’s “I charge this much” and “My time is worth this much” advice is spot on!

    If the people who ask you to do free stuff are your friends and family, then it gets tricky. There are cultural assumptions that might play into it, like kids taking care of their aging parents or women being stuck with the heavy chores while men do “men stuff”. If this is the case, I have a mantra that I keep using. I worked out which my long term goals are. I am 100% responsible for reaching those goals so everytime somebody asks me to do something for them, I check that those long term goals are not impacted. If they are, then I will say no to their request. Right now my long term goal is to lose weight. I have a set of rules: I’ll cook at least 4 times a week, I’ll work out at least 3 times a week, etc, etc. If someone asks me to give up time, I always think if my commitment will leave me enough time to do what I promised to myself, and if it does, well, tough luck, my goals matter more.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *