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🙅‍♂️ IG#31: How to Say No (& Set Boundaries Gracefully)

Decline invitations and opportunities without being a dick.

Dominik Nitsch
6 min read
🙅‍♂️ IG#31: How to Say No (& Set Boundaries Gracefully)

One of the biggest struggles I face is saying no to things. It’s just so easy to say “yes”, especially if you want to avoid rubbing someone the wrong way.

But the more you advance in your career, the more important it becomes to say no.

To protect your time, your focus, your energy.

So today, I want to share a few frameworks that have helped me say no and set boundaries. Let’s dive in. 🤿

Actually, before we dive in, let’s talk about my first startup, Linguedo! It was founded back in 2016 and it’s still going strong (despite or because of me leaving in 2020).

We bring unemployed nurses from Italy & Brazil to Germany and teach them German, using our custom-built intensive German language course. This allows us to give life-changing opportunities to people abroad and fight the lack of qualified labourers in Germany.

Nurses aren’t the only ones wanting to work in Germany, and the German market needs plenty of other professionals too. That's why we're broadening our services  to recruiting professionals in the areas of electronics, mechatronics, mechanics and IT. Do you know anyone in Germany that is dying to hire qualified personnel? If so, please shoot me a message.

So far, we’ve brought >300 highly qualified people to Germany. We've done multiple projects for some very renowned hospitals in Germany, working with one for over 5 years. Yes, our service is that good.

Please let your friends know. Especially if they’re hiring electricians or mechanics.

[1] Prologue: Valuing Your Time

Before setting any boundaries, a good exercise to do is to value your time.

How much is an hour of your time worth to you?

Find that number. According to Naval, it should be aspirational (his is $5,000/hour).

Once you have that, it becomes much easier to say no: is this really worth $5,000 to me?

If whatever is being asked from you isn’t worth it, say no.

Now, you can’t really say: “sorry, I value my time at $5,000/hour and what you’re asking from me just isn’t worth that.”

That will make you sound like a dick.

Instead, we need to learn how to say no gracefully. ⬇️

[2] Three Ways of Saying No

Insights from Jade Bonacolta & myself

Open with appreciation instead of an apology

Instead of saying: “Sorry, I simply don’t have the time”

Say: “Thank you for thinking of me!”

Being grateful sets the tone for the relationship, and builds a reputation for being kind. You never know when you’ll meet the other person again. Might as well be kind.

NB: Apologize where apologies are in order. If you have to reschedule something last minute, that’s on you.

Suggest another option

Instead of saying: “Sorry, this isn’t the right fit for our company.”

Say: “You might be interested in speaking with this company - from what I understand, your solution might be able to solve one of their problems.”

Same goes for messages from recruiters, public speaking requests, or requests to “pick your brain”.

Give them a quick call

Instead of saying: “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.”

Say: “Let me give you a quick call some time within the next 2 days. What’s your phone number?”

Usually, when someone asks for a 30 minute meeting or a coffee, they have one very specific question that you can sort out in five minutes.

CEO coach Matt Mochary (absolute legend) has a “call list”: a list of people that he wants to get back to without a structured meeting. Whenever he would listen to a podcast, instead, he goes through this list and calls people back.

(A wonderful example of “batching”, by the way.)

Let’s see this in action.

[3] Real-Life Examples: Saying No Gracefully

Insights from Tim Ferriss, Daniel Kahneman & Matt Mochary

In his book, Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss lists three wonderful rejections from people that he asked to participate in the book. These are wonderful examples of saying no gracefully.

Wendy McNaughton

“[…] So while I really wanna do this with you - I respect you and your work and I’m really honored that you’d ask me to participate - and as capital S stupid as it is for me professionally not to do it, I’m going to have to say thank you but … I gotta pass. I’m simply not in a place to talk about myself or my work right now. […]”

“I hope the space created by my absence is filled by one of the brilliant people I suggested in my previous email.”

I love this. First, she leads with gratitude. Then, she suggests other people that he may want to interview.

Danny Meyer

“[…] I’m grateful for the invitation to participate in Tim’s next book project, but am struggling at this moment to make time ends meet for all we’re doing at USHG, including my ongoing procrastination with my own writing projects. I thought carefully about this as it’s clearly a wonderful opportunity, but am going to decline - with gratitude. […]”

He makes it relatable (who doesn’t know procrastination with their own projects), and includes a lot of gratitude.

Neal Stephenson

“[…] & thanks for thinking of me in the context. It has become pretty obvious of late that I’m trying to do too much, and so I started an experiment of not adding anything whatsoever to my to-do list, so that it wouldn’t get any longer.

The result is that the items that were ALREADY on my to-do list only spawned more items as I crossed them off, and so it’s a little like fighting a hydra. I am hoping that if I am ruthlessly efficient, I can one day get to the point where the list actually gets shorter instead of longer.

In the meantime, unfortunately, the “ruthlessly efficient” part of this plan means that I am turning down things like this just as a blanket policy. […]”

Stephenson provides an - again - very relatable explanation and leads with gratitude.

Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman never says “yes” on the phone. Whenever he’s asked for something - even if he wants to say yes on the spot - he replies:

”Thank you for thinking of me. I have a policy of never saying yes on the spot, so let me think about it and get back to you.” (paraphrased)

This technique allows to think something through before committing to it. With the added time, you can (a) really commit to it, or (b) say no gracefully, which you might not be able to do on the spot.

Matt Mochary

Finally, we have Matt Mochary (who of course has a resource on saying no too, which of course is incredibly useful):

“Thank you for your request to ….  While I am sure that I would enjoy that, I am choosing to focus my time on my top priorities, which are ____, ___, and ____.  And therefore I cannot accommodate your request.”

“While I cannot meet for coffee, I would like to help if I can.  What question do you have for me?  If I am able to help in a reasonable amount of, I will.”

This is how you say no gracefully and set boundaries.

Let’s put it into practice. ➡️

Action Items

  1. Next time someone asks for something, thank them first.
  2. If you don’t want to do it, explain why you cannot.
  3. Suggest another option for them instead.
  4. If you’re willing to spend a few minutes on the person, give them a call.

We all know this person that always says yes.

If that’s you, I hope this was helpful.

If that’s one of your friends, please forward them this newsletter.

Let’s be focused, graceful, and kind.



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Further Reading on a similar topic:

When should you say yes, when should you say no?

Dominik Nitsch • Aug 13, 2023

“When you say Yes, good things happen. You should say Yes more often.” - me to myself “In order to be successful, you need to say No to most things. You should say No more often.” - also me to myself ??? *visible confusion* What a conundrum. I’m supposed to say yes to things - because if I say no to everything, then I wil…

Read full story →

Whenever you’re ready, here’s how else I can help you:


Dominik Nitsch

Proud generalist: Entrepreneur, Athlete, & Writer.

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