The Four Parts of No

By Courtney R. Gibbons, Hamilton College

I’m sure you, like me, have way too much going on.  And I’m sure you, like me, are asked to take on even more.  Some of these projects are fun.  Some of them align with your long-term interests.  Some of them are even better than all of the stuff on your plate put together.  Even if the opportunity is great, you may still want or need to say “No.”  I trust that you have either a good innate sense of when to say no or a mentor who will help you decide.  What I would like to offer you today is a guide to the four things that I put into my no response: Appreciation, No, Explanation, Request.

Here’s a quick example, and then I’ll say a little more about each part.

Dear Courtney,
We would love it if you organized a session for our research program at the Joint Math Meetings.  What do you say?
Sincerely, Research Program Organizer

Dear Research Program Organizer,
Wow! Thanks for thinking of me as a potential organizer.  Unfortunately, I have to say no.  Although it would be fun to do this, when I look at my CV, I realize I should be actively pursuing opportunities to speak in sessions, not organize them.  Here are some people I think would do a great job and might find it valuable for their professional development: (name, name, name).

1. Appreciation
When I read a request, I usually have to get my brain to switch out of cynic mode.  Figuring out how to start off a message with appreciation helps me to do this.  After all, someone asked me — me?! — to do something, and it’s mentally helpful for me to assume it’s because they think I’ll do it well.  I like to start off by recognizing this.

2. No
This part should be easy: say no.  Flavors of “No” that I like range from “Hell no!” to “Not yet” to “Yes, but” — here are some examples.
“That doesn’t align with my goals, so I must decline.”
“It’s tempting, but not yet.”
“I want to do this, but here are some obstacles.”
In my response, these sentences are followed by an explanation, but I try to make it clear right here whether the I want the person sending the request to help me problem solve so that I can say “Yes” instead.

3. Explanation
Here is the most important part of the message based on my experience so far.  As honestly as possible, I give my reasons:
“I have bronchitis.”
“I can’t justify taking on a service role right now without a payoff in terms of compensation, professional development, or work that counts toward tenure.”
I try to make sure that I am honest so that if someone does find a way to respond constructively to my explanation (“But this is instant-tenure, didn’t you know?”), it does change my answer from no to yes.  If you haven’t had the experience of coming up with a great excuse only to have it artfully handled, trust me, it stinks.  Another benefit is that, if your explanation is, “I should be speaking in research sessions,” the person you emailed may try to help you with that!

4. Request
I know it sounds weird to answer a request with a request.  I have found that it’s helpful to give the asker something to do after reading your email.  Do you want to participate, but can’t afford to get to the conference? Ask for help to solve this problem.  Do you not want to do this? If you know of others who would benefit from saying yes to the request, suggest them (I like to ask for permission, first, though). Are you unsure if this is a good career move for you? Suggest that the asker talk to your department chair or someone else who acts as a gatekeeper for your time. Ideally, this gives the asker a next step that isn’t just “get Courtney to say yes.”

So there you have it — that’s how I say no to requests.  I’m happy to trade advice in the comments!

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