"Financial Planning ... it's not always about money."

Learn When to Say No

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David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting


You can’t say yes to everyone and everything and do all of it well. When you take on too many or the wrong things, you waste time, energy and money, and distract yourself from what’s really important. Still, no one wants to anger or disappoint colleagues or other contacts — or, worse, turn down key career and life opportunities.

You must therefore learn when and how to say both no and yes. A considered no protects you. The right yes allows you to serve others, make a difference, collaborate successfully and increase your influence.


How do you do it? Through decades of research into what makes people the most highly valued, indispensable employees, I have uncovered a framework that I believe works. It has three parts: assess the ask, deliver a well-reasoned no and give a yes that sets you up for success.


When making a financial investment, most of us do some due diligence — seeking out more information so that we can make a sound judgment. When you say yes or no to a request, you’re deciding where to invest your personal resources, so give the choice the same careful consideration.

That starts with insisting on a well-defined ask. You should ask questions and take notes, clarifying every aspect of the request, including the costs and benefits. Think of the intake memos that lawyers, accountants and doctors write. The memo should cover the following questions:

  1. What is today’s date and time? (This will help you track how the project evolves.)
  2. Who is the asker?
  3. What is the deliverable being requested? Be specific.
  4. By when does it need to be accomplished?
  5. What resources will be required?
  6. Who is the source of authority on this issue, and do you have that person or group’s approval?
  7. What are the possible benefits?
  8. What are the obvious and hidden costs?


A thoughtful no, delivered at the right time, can be a huge boon, saving time and trouble for everybody down the road.

A bad no, hastily decided, causes problems for everybody, especially you. Bad nos happen when you haven’t properly assessed the ask; when you let decisions be driven by personal biases, including dislike of the asker or dismissals of people who don’t seem important enough; or when you decline simply because you’ve said yes to too many other things and don’t have any capacity left.

A good no is all about timing and logic. You should say no to things that are not allowed, cannot be done or that, on balance, should not be done. I call these the “no gates,” a concept I borrowed from a project-management technique called stage-gate reviews, which divide initiatives into distinct phases and then subject each to a “go, no go” decision.

The first gate is the easiest to understand. If there are procedures, guidelines or regulations that prohibit you from doing something — or someone has already made it clear that this category of work is off-limits to you, at least for now — then you simply give a straight no. What do you say? “I don’t have discretion here. This request violates policy/rules/law. So you really shouldn’t make it at all. Perhaps I can help you reframe your request within the rules so that it can then be considered.”

Turning people down at the second gate is also straightforward (at least sometimes). If the request isn’t feasible, you say, “I simply can’t do it.” If you just don’t have the ability to deliver on it, then you say, “Sorry, that’s outside my skill set. I’m not even close.”

What if you don’t currently have the experience and skills to handle the request quickly and confidently — but you could acquire them? The answer still might be no. But the answer could also be “This is not my specialty. That said, if you accept that I’d need extra time to climb a learning curve, then I’ll take a crack at it.”

The most common reason for “I cannot,” however, is overcommitment. In those instances, people tend to say things like “With all the other priorities I’m balancing, I don’t have the availability to do it anytime soon.” That’s a forced no. If you can’t avoid it, try to preserve the opportunity to fulfill the request later or else help out down the road when you are available.

What’s the best way to respond? “I’m already committed to other responsibilities and projects. I’d love to do this for you at a later time. If that’s not possible, I’d love to be of service somehow in the future.”

The third gate is the trickiest because whether something merits doing isn’t always clear at first. You need to make a judgment on the likelihood of your success, on the potential return on investment and on fit with your and your organization’s priorities. And sometimes the answer to the request is “maybe” or “not yet.”

What do you say in those cases? “I need to know more. Let me ask you the following questions ...” Essentially, you’re getting the person in need of help to make a more thorough or convincing proposal.


Every good no makes room for a better yes — one that adds value, builds relationships and enhances your reputation.

What is a better yes?

It’s aligned with the mission, values, priorities, ground rules and marching orders from above. It’s for something that you can do, ideally well, fast and with confidence. In other words, it involves one of your specialties — or an opportunity to build a new one. It allows you to make an investment of time, energy and resources in something that has a high likelihood of success and offers significant potential benefits.

The key to a great yes is clear communication and a focused plan for execution. First, explain exactly why you’re saying yes: You can enrich the project, you want to collaborate, you see the benefits. Then pin down your plan of action, especially for a deliverable of any scope.

Make sure you agree on the details, including what the requester needs from you, what you will do together, how and when the work will be done, who has oversight and when you’ll discuss the issue next.

The only way to be sustainably successful is to get really good at saying no in a way that makes people feel respected and to say yes only when your reasoning is sound and you have a clear plan of attack.

c.2023 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

This HBR article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting