The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything. —Warren Buffett
If you’re a consultant, author, coach, or highly successful in your field, you undoubtedly get emails and LinkedIn messages from people who want to talk to you. And as much as you would like to help each person, there isn’t just enough time.
So how do you do it without the other person getting mad at you?
To be clear, I want to assure you that “no” is enough. You don’t owe it to anyone to have to say more than that. But there are times when any of us struggle with refusing a request. Maybe it’s from a friendly colleague or friend or even from a friend of a friend. In those cases, what’s the best way then to turn someone down?
I personally answer numerous emails from strangers each day, but I rarely accept the daily requests for “buy you a cup of coffee” or “15-minute phone call.” I often send a response email beginning with “Thanks for reaching out,” followed by:
1. “… but I’m on a deadline right now and am not taking any new meetings until I’m done.”
I use this approach often with strangers who cold-contact me. I don’t specify what the deadline is. Since they’re strangers, they don’t need to know my details and shouldn’t expect me to share. And the word deadline has a magic to it, a power that most people can relate to.
2. “… but unfortunately my schedule is so packed at this time that I can only take calls and meetings with paying clients. Thanks for understanding.”
I use this approach for people who are looking for free advice that will benefit them and their company tremendously.
It’s really incredible how often people who already have decent income and assets will ask for time and information that will make them a ton of money, but they don’t think to hire someone for the answer. The approach above is a gentle nudge that if they really want to talk to me about their business problem, they can do it if they’re willing to pay. They almost always disappear instead.
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3. “… and I’m happy to connect, but there is no daylight on my calendar until 2:15 p.m. ET on [pick a date five months in the future].”
This is what I usually say to someone who I don’t know personally but who is vaguely connected in some way (such as a friend of someone who used to work for me a few years ago). The intent of this approach is to not reject them outright, but to let them know I’m hustlin’ and have a very busy calendar.
This response sends the message that their issue had better be pretty important, and if they really want to meet with you, they’ll take the offered time slot in the distant future. I’ve found that most of these people just respond and say, “Oh, no worries, you sound swamped. Let’s just connect when you’re less busy.” And they go away.
4. “… and my next open slot for a phone call is 2:00 a.m. to 2:15 a.m. ET on Thursday of next week. Let me know if that works for you.”
Notice the time slot is a.m., not p.m.; that’s on purpose. I only use this line about once or twice a year, because if the person calls my bluff, I’ll actually have to stay up late or drag my butt out of bed to take the call. But I use this on people who are really, really persistent. If I know they’re a persistent stranger just trying to sell me something, I can easily say no. But if a friend or business partner suggested they call me, I don’t want to ignore them out of courtesy to my friend.
But this approach puts a burden back on the requester. How badly do they want to talk to me? Are they really willing to do the call in the middle of the night? Usually they respond with, “Sure, next Thursday afternoon is great, but you had a typo and wrote A.M., that would sure be a crazy time!” I then write back, “No typo. I’m a 24/7 kind of guy, and that’s my only open slot for the next several months. Do you want it?”
I’ve never actually had a person in this situation ask for the call, which is really amazing. Their initial request is usually something like, “Kevin, you’re a New York Times bestselling author and I want to become one too,” or “Kevin, you’re a self-made millionaire and I want to become one too.” Yet they won’t take the call at 2 in the morning to hit the bestseller lists or to become a millionaire. And, if anyone ever says, “You bet, I’ll call you then,” I can always respond and say I found a way to move something around and that we can talk during normal business hours.
5. “… but I don’t think I’m the best person; I’d like to refer you to [NAME].”
This is an easy one. People often request your time because they think you know something that can help them or that you are a decision maker that can buy something. If you aren’t, or if you’ve “delegated” that decision making power to someone on your team, use this approach.
You can always qualify it by saying something like, “The fastest way to make progress on this is for you to talk directly to my colleague Paulina. But don’t worry. When you’re talking to Paulina, you’re talking to me. She’s the ultimate decider here.”
6. “… but I’m not able to take any more meetings or calls during normal business hours. But I often can catch up on emails during travel or at night. Would you like to communicate via email?”
This is probably the response I use most often. I really do try to respond to every email I get from readers, email newsletter subscribers, referrals, etc. And email is way more efficient than live phone calls.
7. “… and as a rule, I only schedule 15 minutes for first calls. If you’re interested, could you send over a draft agenda so I can see what we’ll be covering and what desired outcome you are hoping for?”
Again, if you don’t want to just reject the person, this type of response is a good way to let them know you’re very busy, so if they really want to talk to you, they’d better be willing to do some pre-work. I usually never hear from these people again.
And there you have it—seven painless ways to say no. Because remember:
Every “yes” is a “no” to something else.