How to tactfully say no to requests and opportunities


K.A. writes:

I had someone contact me for an interview series last year. She had a tight deadline, and I accommodated and got all the info + images to her despite being really busy with client work. She ended up scrapping the series and never published it. I was a little annoyed! Well, I just got an email from her wanting to set up another interview about the projects I’m working on… I don’t really have time and feel a little burned by our last interaction – I hate saying that, but it’s the truth! Any ideas on gentle ways to say no?! 

This has been such a common refrain in the online creative community lately: how do I turn this person down? How do I say no? Should I say no? I have a lot of thoughts, but let's address this very specific scenario first, which deals more with the issue of being asked for non-paid opportunties, requests or favors.

2 questions to ask yourself:

1. Is this worth spending your time on at any point in the future?
2. Do you want to leave the door open for another interaction?

If both answers are no, then here's a suggestion for a tactful way to shut the door on the opportunity. The key is to be polite and unambiguous -- don't invite them to follow-up later if you don't actually want them to!

Hey [Name here]!

Thanks so much for thinking of me. I won’t have time to commit to this right now but best of luck with your future projects!

[your name]


Many of us approach these situations from a well meaning place. It would be awesome to do this and help this person out! Or you perceive an opportunity to set up a potential future benefit. Maybe I can use this interview to generate some buzz about my business! Fair reason to give of your time, even if you won't see any direct results for a while. But if any of this starts to make you feel icky, used, or resentful, it's a pretty clear sign to stop and re-evaluate whether the situation is deserving of your time, or find a way to make it deserving of your time.

Speaking as a not-quite-reformed people pleaser (I'm working on it!), I know a thing or two about wanting to gently say no, but somehow finding a way to rationalize a yes. But here's the thing to remember: you have zero obligation to offer your time to anyone if you don't want to!

I used to worry so much about this coming off as mean, but it doesn't have to be that way at all. It's a matter of learning how to respect the way you choose to spend your time. If you choose to be generous with it, particularly with others, then do it because you actually want to. Because frankly, giving your time in a resentful way isn't going to do any good for you (because you feel like crap) or for the person you're helping/talking to/collaborating with (your heart won't be in it, which never leads to ideal outcomes!).

Now, how to tactfully say no to a potential or actual client is a whole other can of worms... ;)

What do you think? How do you decide what opportunties are worth investing your time in and what isn't?