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January 27, 2018 1:43 AM   Subscribe

How do you politely decline requests that are too open-ended for a hard "no"?

I have a colleague who seems, to me, to be a kind of diabolical genius at getting people to commit to helping with projects and events by leaving the specifics just open-ended enough that a straight refusal would either not make sense or seem incredibly rude.

For example, each semester, she asks me to give a presentation to her students at my workplace, leaving the date, time, and subject completely open-ended. If I try to decline by indicating that a certain date, day of the week, or time won't work, she simply suggests a different one. If I try to suss out what she might want me to talk about, she'll say that anything at all is fine, and my trying to elicit more specific information so that I can anchor a "no" to something turns into a conversation where I've narrowed down a subject for myself in the process of trying to rule things out. The lack of specifics means it's not really possible to give a blanket "no" that isn't simply "I don't want to, ever." While there are times when I'd really like to say just that - and I think she knows this - I'm not keen to say it out loud (or in writing, as much of this communication takes place via email, with other colleagues copied).

This is just one example. Similar discussions have unfolded in response to requests to assist with planning events, provide written content for newsletters, etc. I actually do a fair amount of community and professional service, and I'm usually pretty good at responding to requests like this from other colleagues without (as far as I can tell) causing offense, but this particular tactic always seems to draw me into further discussion and I haven't figured out how to shut it down. I know that "no" is a complete sentence, but in a professional context it has to be a bit longer than that, and it feels like anything I add in order to be polite opens the door to further negotiation.

I have read the answers to this recent question about establishing boundaries, and some of them get at the underlying issue, but some of the specific suggestions seem like they're meant more for in-person interactions than written communication. If you have a tried-and-true script for these kinds of conversations, I would love to hear it.
posted by Anita Bath to Human Relations (40 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Tell her your calendar is pretty full, and demand a deadline. Consider it for 5 seconds, or a day, and say, "I'm sorry, I can't take that project on right now." Polite but firm. "I don't have the bandwidth." "My availability is restricted for the foreseeable future." "I can't do that project the justice it deserves."

Here's the important part. After the unspecific decline, such as the above, you finish with, "...so I have to decline. Please find someone else for this." You can follow that with specific suggestions, or a flattering, "you know lots of people who are up for this," or make an exit/change the subject.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:52 AM on January 27, 2018 [23 favorites]

"That won't be possible." You do not have to justify or rationalize why.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:03 AM on January 27, 2018 [24 favorites]

The only thing that will stop this person is a flat out "no, I don't want to do *vaguely worded request* any more".

"That won't be possible" even repeated, will only invite more of what you're complaining about. It may seem scary and rude to come right out and simply tell someone you don't want to fulfill a request, but it's not. What it is, is truthful and useful. It tells the person what they need to know to move on from bothering you and ask someone else.

I've found it to be immensely freeing, and the funny thing is that it doesn't end up causing the offense you seem to be frightened of. People take it in and move on.
posted by Gnella at 2:22 AM on January 27, 2018 [21 favorites]

I wouldn’t ordinarily suggest it but perhaps just not responding might work.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:33 AM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

This kind of person is manipulating people by exploiting their feeling that it is rude or unacceptable to say no, and they do not deserve consideration. They often seem genuinely shocked when handed a flat denial, perhaps because the strategy has been so effective until then.
posted by thelonius at 2:42 AM on January 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

I agree with sciencegeek that with this person, you can just not respond. Since she tries to trample peoples' boundaries to get them to do what she wants, I think she has turned over her right to a response.
posted by Eevee at 3:01 AM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you're determined to respond though, I'd say, "I'm unable to do that, but good luck with your project." That way, you're saying no while expressing some goodwill towards her.
posted by Eevee at 3:09 AM on January 27, 2018 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I tend to go with a general "I'm sorry, but I'm not interested." or, if a better fit, "I don't think that would work.", "I don't think I'm the right person for your project." or other equally vague but clear dismissals of the idea followed by polite repeats of the no that don't allow for shifts in conditions to hold valid. Respond to vague requests with broad, opaque, yet firm refusals.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:12 AM on January 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

I would say that I have a busy and unpredictable schedule right now and that it would be irresponsible to make the commitment to a particular time and date under these circumstances.

Or perhaps turn the tables: say yes and then cancel at the last minute.
posted by Morpeth at 3:40 AM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

It's fine to give an open-ended request a hard "no" when you know the answer is no. It's clear communication.
posted by aniola at 5:54 AM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

"That's too vague for me to commit to. Come back when you have specifics"

and what's wrong with just saying "No thank you, I'm not interested in doing that." That's a perfectly good reason to say no. If you must follow up you can say "I already have plans for community outreach/whatever"
posted by Caravantea at 5:55 AM on January 27, 2018 [21 favorites]

Because an open-ended request is still a request, and even if you remove some variables (time, topic), you still know whether you want to do the thing.
posted by aniola at 5:57 AM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Other people seem to think that this person is manipulative. From what you've said, though, it seems as though she values your presentations enough that she's willing to accommodate your schedule. So I really disagree with the hostile answers.

I've had good luck with responses like "That sounds like fun/a great idea/a good cause/something else truthful. But I've got a lot on my plate these days, and I just don't want to take on any extra commitments right now. So I'll have to say no." Then follow it up with an expression of goodwill. Feel free to replace "right now" with "these days" or "this year" or "for the foreseeable future". If I want to, I also offer something else smaller, like the name of another person who might like to do it, or to volunteer in a much smaller role.

People understand if you tell them you just don't any extra commitments.
posted by MangoNews at 5:58 AM on January 27, 2018 [60 favorites]

Just in case you're open to doing X thing, but not open to the long process of sussing out what she might possibly want, you could ask her to send you a detailed write-up of what she's looking for, including specific dates, duration, and perhaps even an honorarium. Then when/if you end up saying no, you'll have demonstrated not only boundary-setting, but that you expect professionalism and rigor around these kinds of requests.

If she starts to tell say well, really I'm just looking for [vague, nebulous cloud-thing], you can interrupt her to say no no, I've got too much on my plate right now; you'll need to put it in writing.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:28 AM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: "Thanks for thinking of me. I must decline, as I am now devoting the limited hours I have to serving my profession on other projects."

Sometimes, if I am willing to do it but need detail I'll set my terms and say: "I only complete service activities like this on alternating Thursdays. I'm only available on February 8th and April 23rd. I'm happy to have your class come in on one of those days after 2 p.m." Asking her for clarification leaves all of the control to her. If you clarify upfront what you're able to do, it makes that drift more difficult.

Also, I often just reply to the originator of the request rather than replying to everyone who is copied. That makes it a little easier to say no.
posted by sockermom at 6:29 AM on January 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and on the concern about causing offense: I have a colleague who likes to pull this stuff with me, and he gets really upset when I say no. What he's really upset with is that I have boundaries and a backbone and he can't use me. It's very frustrating, but it is less of a professional hit to have him be annoyed with me than it is to give him a bunch of my time. Time is incredibly precious, and I'd rather have that than be in a user's good graces. Remembering this helps me say no a bit more easily.
posted by sockermom at 6:34 AM on January 27, 2018 [17 favorites]

"Sorry, I can't without a specific date/time/subject. Let me know when you have those and I'll check my availability." If she tries to put the burden back on you, don't respond.
posted by Mavri at 6:36 AM on January 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

Best answer: "Looking at the scope of work I generally have to accomplish over a semester, plus my personal and volunteering commitments, I don't think I'd have the time to support without a better understanding of exactly what you need and what the time commitment would be."

If you want to be extra nice, "I might have N hours I could support you with around X date, but please check with me a (couple weeks,month) in advance and I'll let you know for sure."
posted by bfranklin at 6:36 AM on January 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Is there any chance this is a typical ask/guess confusion?

Regardless, my response is simply "Sorry, but i'll have to say no -- I'm not taking on any new commitments right now. Thanks for thinking of me though!".
posted by cgg at 6:40 AM on January 27, 2018 [16 favorites]

Best answer: I pretty much follow cgg's script when I turn people down, and haven't had too many issues. If someone does keep pushing, I'll reply along the lines of, "I really can't commit to this right now. If anything changes, I'll let you know." i.e. a polite "don't call us, we'll call you," which, again, generally seems to work.
posted by ferret branca at 6:57 AM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

"I can only commit to a very few requests for outside projects, so I can't really give you an answer without more specifics. Even if you gave me specifics, I might not be able to commit the time, but I definitely can't without knowing more."
posted by amtho at 7:06 AM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My job obliges me to be incredibly productive internally and my boss has done a great job of establishing me as the front door/welcome mat for our company to any and all would-be partners, vendors, and other hangers-on. Lest this make him sound like a bad person, it's an (apparently) necessary element of his persona - he's somewhat well known in our little corner of the industry and he a) knows he'll never follow up on the valid requests and b) doesn't want to be seen as the bad guy who turns down the invalid requests.

I say all that to say this: I am a somewhat introverted, people-pleaser type by nature who has had to learn how to shut shit down with a minimum of effort if I want to keep my workload sane and ever get to see my family. Here's a rough triage approach I take:

- can I just ignore the request? I don't understand the mentality around owing people an explanation. If someone with no claim on your time contacts you about something you're not responsible for, ignore it. My mom once said something like "I try telling these telemarketers I'm not interested, but they keep talking!" My response was "they can talk as long as they like; I say 'no thank you' and hang up." By nature, I hate being this way, but truly 'junk' requests like this come across my plate dozens of times a day. I'd never get anything done otherwise.

- an open-ended ask deserves an open-ended 'no' in your case, it sounds like maybe (giving them the benefit of the doubt) the person asking is a peer or colleague, and it might blow back on you somehow if you just completely ignore them. It is still perfectly fine to say a qualified "I'm afraid that won't be possible." Now, literally saying IATWBP to people, as is often suggested here, works only if the person has no relationship with you. It's a bridge-burner, in my opinion. Use that one on the department store manager who wants you to join their loyalty club. But you can convey the same thing in a brief statement that expresses regret but doesn't open it up for discussion. "Yeah, they've got me extremely busy on the budget/Christmas party/Johnson contract and I'm doing good to stay ahead of that." Sounds sympathetic but does not open any doors. Do NOT include phrases like "I'd love to" or "after this %thingthatsactuallymyjob eases up," as those open up negotiations and/or come back to bite you. Be prepared to say variations on this repeatedly, as in my experience people who have some relationship with you rarely go away entirely.

(as an exercise, try noticing how many people who work around you basically give you this one all the time. Do you still respect them? Maybe respect them MORE? Exactly.)

- if they're asking you to give a commitment, get one EVEN if the request is something you feel you have to do or maybe want to do, open ended requests don't fly with me, and an amazing number of them disappear once you get the requestee some homework. Others in the thread have suggested something like this, and the distinction here is - IMO you do this IF it's something you actually need or want to do, which doesn't sound like it's the case here.

"Hey, we want you to speak to our group!"

"OK, give me some open dates, and let me know what time it meets, how long the presentation needs to be, and can I get a projector or display?"


An amazing number of those requests disappear into thin air...
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:11 AM on January 27, 2018 [21 favorites]

How about "It depends on how much high priority stuff I'm handling at that time."

Also "I don't know yet. Check with me __ weeks before your event and maybe I can give you a tentative answer."
posted by puddledork at 7:36 AM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Other people seem to think that this person is manipulative. From what you've said, though, it seems as though she values your presentations enough that she's willing to accommodate your schedule. So I really disagree with the hostile answers.

Yeah, I don't think this person is trying to sucker you: I think she's trying to make it easy for you to say yes - accommodating your schedule and interest on topics. In her way, she may think she's helping you rather than helping her, which is why the "maybe you can find someone else" won't really work.

To make these questions go away I find it useful to challenge the underlying assumption behind the thing. So for something like this, I'd say, "Oh, you are so kind to try to offer me this professional opportunity! Unfortunately I do speaking engagements all the time and am kind of burned out on them, but I am so touched you offered!"
posted by corb at 7:47 AM on January 27, 2018 [8 favorites]

"(Alright,) once you know the specifics let me know, and I'll see if it'll fit into my schedule."
posted by obliterati at 7:53 AM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

That's really too vague. Please send me detail by email. I should warn you, I've been quite heavily scheduled, so I probably won't be able to take on additional tasks, but I'll be able to assess that if I get more information. When you get the email, say No. I have to have requests by email because that's how I get them into my calendar, and it gives me time to think about it and check my schedule.
posted by theora55 at 8:18 AM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm famous in my circle for basically doing almost nothing I don't want to do outside of work. This comes rather naturally to me, so I don't have a prepared line for it, but thinking back it usually comes out like something along the lines of:

"I've already committed to as much as I'm able to for the time being." or
"I decided I can't do any more [whatever] for a while."

Even if that means you've decided you want to spend every spare moment playing Minecraft for the next three years, that's your beeswax.

If it's someone I'm genuinely friendly with, this will not come as a surprise, because we've probably already discussed things like self-care, how we choose to use our precious free time, etc. If it's not someone I'm friendly with, again with the beeswax.
posted by lampoil at 8:35 AM on January 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

"I'm sorry, I'd love to help, but this year I have so many commitments I really can't take on another one. Thanks for thinking of me."

It's none of her business if your commitments are lying on the couch watching netflix and playing with your cats.

(On preview - what other folks have already said).
posted by bunderful at 9:34 AM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd just not say yes to any specifics, which doesn't mean saying no. Ah! Yeah, maybe! That sounds interesting, we SHOULD do that sometime. (i.e., not now, and I'm going to keep brushing off attempts to define details)

Then just never make definite plans. It becomes the thing you can mention every time you get together, but never resolve. "Oh, we were going to do the thing sometime, weren't we? I've been so busy. Anyway, how have you been?"
posted by ctmf at 9:38 AM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: She's trying to make you do her homework for her. You shouldn't have to ferret out specifics from her. If it's a project you'd actually be interested in (or need to say yes to for work reasons), then "I'm afraid I can't commit to that without more specifics. Please let me know when you have more details (dates, deadlines, type of content, etc.)." If it's something you don't want to do at all, however, there's no reason you have to tie your "No" to any specifics. "That won't work for me this semester. Thanks so much for thinking of me!"
posted by lazuli at 12:21 PM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Your question and description contains a wall of text in which you're both: dodging and evading stating exactly what outcome *you* want from this, and casting a very negative light on a person who's demonstrating very common and positive traits professionally: communication, taking initiative, flexibility/adaptability and that she both values your services and is willing to go to great lengths to accomdate you.
Since this is done through email exchange,
1. You're not obligated to reply immediately, if ever. 2. "No thank you." Or, "I'll have to decline." Are simple complete sentences take seconds to fire off, remembering that, 3. Youll have to add something like: "I'm not interested in/capable of participating in ***events (&in the future?)". And even: "Please remove me from your group invitation email list," if it's causing you this much distress in just saying No.
posted by OnefortheLast at 12:28 PM on January 27, 2018

The jump on her assumed character and intent really seems unkind. Since your hesitant or unclear decline is then proceeded by her launching into clarification/problem solving mode, I would guess that her character and intent is anything but. It sounds from your description that perhaps she's either in a position of authority and maybe even works with a demographic of people that she's teaching/helping/training? Ie. "No I don't really want to eat. " Could mean, "I don't have a proper lunch, or kid next to me is going to steal it" from a child to their school supervisor. Or, "I have a health issue, or this item conflicts with my religion" from a senior in a care facility. Or, "I think I'm overweight and feeling selfconscious" etc.etc.etc. As in, when you deliver an unclear/hestiant no followed by an excuse, it is often heard as, "I would but..." perhaps it's just me but I don't consider that a politeness, I consider it to be *you* delivering the open end to which a dialogue would then ensue.
People with poor/weak boundaries in communcation have often developed passive aggressive ways of dealing with them in demonstration. And so, you labeling her as a malevolent person, ("diabolical genius" in manipulation) may be your maladaptive coping mechanism of boundary setting. It's perhaps worth examining, because it's just as unkind as your assumed judgement on her a person, as it is to feel boundaries are being violated. I do however believe in most cases, people do not have hidden malintent or an inner demon out to get you, and so hiding behind that as an excuse to not deliver a proper answer seems unfair/unbalanced. Consider in your next response that is also impolite to deliver an uncertain/wishywashy answer and have the other person retry to no avail to clarify while you pass negative judgements on them, and I'm guessing they'd far prefer a blunt "No and Never" to their time being wasted in such a way professionally.
posted by OnefortheLast at 2:31 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a coworker like this and the people saying this is just a miscommunication are maybe lucky they’ve never encountered the sort of person who does this. Copying colleagues is the tell that this is not just a miscommunication. If you want to ask a specific person for a favor, why are you copying other people? It’s to make it harder to say no.

What I do with them is call and tell them you’re unable to commit right now to their project without specifics and if they try to trap you by sending further emails respond with “per our previous discussion I am unavailable for this request” and don’t respond after that. That makes it so as far as anyone else on the email chain knows she’s the one being bad-mannered.
posted by winna at 2:50 PM on January 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I read some book or article once about how women can learn to say no. In one section, the author talked about how much she learned from the effort to interview a lot of women about how they say no, especially from the real experts, the women who even declined the interview request. She said that the no didn't really hurt when it came with an encouraging comment about the project. So my script is usually some variation on this: "Thank you so much for thinking of me. Unfortunately, this semester is very busy for me, so I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to do it. Best of luck with the project, which sounds quite worthwhile."
posted by salvia at 4:36 PM on January 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: "For example, each semester, she asks me to give a presentation to her students at my workplace, leaving the date, time, and subject completely open-ended. If I try to decline by indicating that a certain date, day of the week, or time won't work, she simply suggests a different one."

"When you've picked a date, let me know, and I'll check my calendar." "I can't commit without a specific date."

"Similar discussions have unfolded in response to requests to assist with planning events, provide written content for newsletters, etc."

"When you've decided on your specific needs for the newsletter/event, let me know, and I'll see if any of them match my availability/ability/whatever."

She's using the open-endedness to try to make it impossible to decline; the response is to refuse to respond to open-endedness. If she has something specific, she can ask you for that thing/time/whatever, and you can say yes or no. Until she has something specific, you're politely interested in her project but you can't commit to anything that vague.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:20 PM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry, I don't have the time/energy/inclination to do that at the moment. I will let you know if anything changes.
posted by intensitymultiply at 12:13 AM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I second just not ever responding to the emails. Put the awkward on her, which is where it belongs - don't respond. If she asks you in person, tell her to email you with more details, always more details, and then don't ever respond. Drop the emails in your archive folder when you get them and go on with your day. Your line when she runs into you is, "Oh, sorry about that, I've just been so busy! Can you send me more specifics? I thought the email was vague and I don't have time to develop something so open-ended."

And then continue archiving the emails. Rinse, repeat.

Essentially, play her game back at her, but play so that you win - what she wants is a response, a commitment, and you're not giving it to her - you need specifics, and if she can't give you extremely specific information, which she will never do, you're not going to respond.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:42 AM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: She's using the open-endedness to try to make it impossible to decline; the response is to refuse to respond to open-endedness.

Yes, exactly this. It seems Eyebrows is more likely to confront it up front, while I respond to vagueness with vagueness. Same principle, though.

Sometimes, a vague expression of general interest (or not) is all people are looking for. If I think it might be cool for you to do something with my students, "How do you feel about addressing my students," even without details, is an important triage question. If it's a categorical no, then I don't have to bother doing the rest of the work. It's not about making it your problem or guilting you into accepting, it's about not doing all MY homework of hammering out details and scheduling, only to find out you aren't going to agree regardless.

Don't string them along if the answer is no. I think the people saying you need to learn to say no if it truly is a categorical no are on the right track also. It's one thing to throw the detail development back in their lap if it's something you would in principle do; it's another to make them do all the futile work when you're going to shoot down every plan and you know it.
posted by ctmf at 12:39 PM on January 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow; a lot of food for thought here. I appreciate the comments from people pointing out that this might be someone's way of trying to make things easy for me. I have reason to believe that that's not what's happening with this specific person (winna's answer is on the right track - I didn't want to describe that history in detail here because other parties copied on these e-mails aren't necessarily privy to it, either) but I will definitely consider that possibility when I field these kinds of requests from others in the future.

I've marked answers with language that I can actually imagine using with this person, and a couple that got me into what felt like the right headspace to respond professionally. Thank you!
posted by Anita Bath at 11:33 PM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Remember that No is a complete sentence. If you want to soften it. No thanks for thinking of me, is also a complete sentence.
posted by wwax at 8:10 AM on January 29, 2018

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