Saying “No” Is Better Than Saying Nothing

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Practice deftness, not deafness.

In a recent blog post, Chris Brogan describes a scenario familiar to anyone not living under a rock: “Today, I sheepishly deleted several e-mails that were waiting for a quick response. Dozens. Maybe 100 overall. So that means almost 100 people got my attention, got me to read something, got me to think that maybe I should do something,” and then never heard back.

Why does this happen so often to so many? Brogan’s diagnosis is convincing: Because “we don’t fully understand the syntax of saying ‘no.’”

He offers a graceful example of how to construct this elusive sentence: “What you’re doing is important, and I’m very supportive of you, but I’m not able to take on what you’d like me to do because of my own full plate of commitments.”

In other words: Thanks, but no thanks.


Whether in business or romance or friendship, surely most of us would prefer the certainty of being rejected to the uncertainty—and looming false hope—of being ignored. To be sure, no reply typically is a reply, just as postponing a decision is a decision. But there’s no getting around the fact that silence stings.

Sadly, this sting is all-too-common among those you’d think would know e-etiquette by heart: PR pros. As workday spinners, we’re paid to frame the conversation, to help a particular perspective prevail. So it’s bemusing that when we confront this challenge in our own lives, we shrink from it instead of enlisting the opportunity. After all, what better way to demonstrate our savvy, our tact, our profession?

No one likes to deliver bad news. It’s unpleasant and messy. Yet it’s also the hallmark of a professional. And as Brogan demonstrates, you can apologize, explain, and decline all in just 32 words.

That shows the opposite of rudeness. That shows character.

A version of this blog post appeared on the Bad Pitch Blog on October 5, 2011.

Addendum (7/29/2013): According to David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of the invaluable book, SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better, Jack Welch “believes that responding to an email request with an absolute ‘There’s just no way I can do that, but good luck’ is a greater kindness than answering with a ‘Maybe’ that’s never going to happen.”

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