Say NO gracefully

Part of being a successful entrepreneur is saying “no.”

Small businesses are constantly hit with offers from potential suppliers, hopeful partners, and even potential customers. Then there are the constant requests for free help, volunteer work, donations, and even jobs. You can’t possibly do it all. Let’s face it. Being in business means saying “no” a lot.

There are positives to saying no.

What could possibly be positive about telling someone no?

  • It keeps you focused on your business. It’s your business, and your butt on the line. Learn to say no.

  • It frees up that person to move on to their next prospect. What, you didn’t realize they have a next prospect? Yeah, it’s true, and you probably aren’t the first on their list. So say no so they can move on.

  • It lets you focus on projects that are core to your business or your heart. If you said yes to every single thing, you couldn’t do any of them well.

  • It makes you realize that you have a target market. If you can’t say no to clients or projects that are a bad fit, you’ll end up scattering your efforts all over.

  • It keeps you in business. If you said yes to every donation request, you would go broke. It’s hard to say no to the kids’ Easter Egg hunt, but you might need to.

Twitterer Elaine Helm said it this way, “Saying no is good for you. And for those on the receiving end.”

So when you say no, remember that. You are helping yourself and them by knowing what is right for you and what isn’t.

Finding the words

Here are three steps to find the right words to say no gracefully.

  1. Acknowledge the importance of the request.
  2. Turn them down.
  3. Optional: offer an alternative.

Chris Brogan asked Twitter for some help finding the right words to say no, nicely. GeekMommy gave good examples acknowledging the request.

  • “Thank you! But I’m sorry I’ll have to turn you down… I just can’t work it out right now.”

  • “It would be a pleasure to work with you at some point, but I’m over-committed as it is right now. I’m sorry I’ll have to say no.”
  • “Wow, thank you for the offer. I’m flattered, I just can’t fit it in right now.”

I added this way of acknowledging the request, a variation of one I read somewhere.

  • “I’m glad that you asked. It’s an important project, and I’m glad you’re doing it. I won’t be able to join, but wish you the best.”

Jon Swanson came up with some good ways to offer alternatives.

  • Give them a short burst of your time.
    “I can give you 15 minutes to help you figure out how you can not need me.”
  • Offer them an alternative prospect.
    “I’m sorry, I wish I could do that as well as _______. Wait. Maybe she’s available. May I check?”

Harveymilk had a suggestion for when a request surprises you.

  • “interim ‘no’= ‘let me get back to you’. Often gives you the time to get to an appropriate no.”

What other ways can you add to offer alternatives when saying no?

And, just a moment of honesty here. We all struggle with this. Every single one of us. It’s tough to tell people no. Here’s the end of our Twitter exchange on saying no.

  • chrisbrogan @BeckyMcCray – very nice response.
  • BeckyMcCray @chrisbrogan Now I just need to use it more. :)
  • chrisbrogan @BeckyMcCray – oh, we don’t follow OUR OWN advice. That’s silly.

This article is part of the Small Biz 100, a series of 100 practical hands-on posts for small business people and solo entrepreneurs, whether in a small town, the big city, or in between. If you have questions you’d like us to address in this series, leave a comment or send us an email at This is a community project!

Get the whole series by subscribing to Small Biz Survival. New here? Take the Guided Tour.

About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

Wondering what is and is not allowed in the comments?
Or how to get a nifty photo beside your name?
Check our commenting policy.
Use your real name, not a business name.

Don't see the comment form?
Comments are automatically closed on older posts, but you can send me your comment via this contact form and I'll add it manually for you. Thanks!


  1. says

    Annie, great post, with some terrific insight to how we feel about saying no. I really like Connie Reece’s comment, “I’m 40 years old, and I don’t have to do this any more.” Take that! :)

  2. says

    This is really wise advice. When you don’t take the time to say no, it drags you and the other person down. I think one of the biggest problems with small business owners is that we want to do it all. And we can’t. Every small business owner should print out this post and paste it where they will see it on a regular basis.

  3. says


    I use the 15 minute and “here’s someone else who can help you” strategies, but I also let them know when I *could* spend time with them, just in case.

    Making your business more scalable (ie: not dependent on every hour of your life) as your success / reputation grows is critical.

    For example, plumbers can make videos, perhaps showing how to replace a seal and spring in a faucet – something I had to do today for the first time ever.

    Maybe its free, maybe its a “member benefit” or maybe its part of a DVD set or website the plumber offers. Regardless, there’s value there.

  4. says

    Thanks for the advice. Definitely a significant challenge for any growing business for sure, I try my best to use a no with options.

  5. says

    Denise, thank you. I need to print it out and re-read it daily, too.

    Mark, you make a good point. When we share answers that way, it can be a resource for coping with certain kinds of requests. I encourage small biz owners who are considering blogging to write down every question a customer asks for two weeks.

    Get-it-Done Guy, thanks for the link. I’m listening now!

    Joe, you’re AJBombers! My friend Phil talks about you often! :)

  6. says

    We sometimes have to say NO to prospects – which can be tough. Especially since we provide financing and many prospects really need it…..

    We tend to use “We are not the right solution for you”. Alternatively, we’ll use “We are not the right match”. We like both because it get’s the message across but it’s also gentle on the prospect.

  7. says

    This one came in via email from Deb Brown @debworks:
    Thanks for the invite. I’m always open to brainstorming, but outside of that I’m not taking on any new projects right now.

    Many thanks to our friend Patsy Terrell who works at the Cosmosphere in Hutch.

  8. says

    Reader Holly Ortolani commented on another post, and I wanted to share it here, as well.

    “It is very hard to say “no”. Your suggestions are wonderful. My hardest are the sports teams, booster clubs and musicals. The schools have cut funding for these wonderful programs so much and they are turning to the local businesses to help out. I figured out a nice way to sort them out. If a parent asks me to give to their child’s organization, I politely say, “Have your child come in and tell me about their organization and what the money is used for and I would be glad to give a donation.” I am a retired teacher and think it IS VERY important that kids of all ages have “people” skills and should see and know who is donating to their programs. Some parents will bring their child back and some think it is a waste of their child’s time. Sorted!”