Tips on how you can say no with grace

Everybody does not need instant access to you, so decide which boundaries you need to preserve your sanity

Saying “no” is an art form; it takes time and practice to perfect your toolkit. Regardless of how you say it, do it politely, firmly, and honestly.In a profession where we easily get pulled in six directions at once, saying “no” often seems impossible, rude, or unethical. Yet, saying “no” is critical to establish boundaries, protect your time, and shelter your personal life.

In other professions, saying “no” is reported as being the secret to success, the recipe for happiness, the foundation of sanity.

Saying “no” is an art form; it takes time and practice to perfect your toolkit. Regardless of how you say it, do it politely, firmly, and honestly.

1) Don’t lie

“I’m sorry, I can’t do it because my third cousin’s sister-in-law’s grandmother broke a leg while dancing the Macarena.”

One of the worst things you can do to make a situation worse is to lie. If you don’t know how to do something, or don’t want to do it, don’t say yes because you feel pressured. Be honest and say, “I don’t have enough experience with that” or “I don’t feel comfortable doing that” or “I’m going to help to do that.”

It’s OK to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that” in some well-chosen circumstances.

2) Provide a reason

In some cases, it is a good idea to provide a reason for saying no. Maybe you cannot stay late on Tuesdays because your child has an after-school activity, or you need to visit someone in the hospital, or because your hedgehog needs insulin.

These are non-negotiable reasons you must say no. There are situations where you need to put your own family and needs first. Saying no can help you focus on the things that truly need and deserve your attention.

3) Don’t provide a reason

There are situations in which you may not feel comfortable providing a reason for saying no. For instance, it’s nobody’s business if you need a colonoscopy, a mammogram, or a biopsy.

Simply say: “I’m not going to answer that,” or “I have a doctor’s appointment,” or “a family member needs help.” Most intelligent people will understand some things should remain private. Maybe their question was inappropriate after all, and they shouldn’t expect a more specific answer.

4) Don’t leave the door open

Sometimes, providing a vague answer gives the other person a bargaining chip for a future request. Say someone asks you to get together for drinks after work, which you don’t want to do.

If you only say “I’m sorry I can’t today, I have a previous engagement,” that opens the door for the person to request another date when you are free. If you have no intention of ever saying yes, then don’t give them false hopes. Say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

Sure, it will be uncomfortable. But it’s better to be upfront early on, rather than prolong the agony over weeks or months. Rip the Band-Aid—once and for all.

5) Defer the decision

Pretend you’re a nurse. A doctor needs X-rays right now. You still have to draw and run blood, give overdue injections, cut nails, and empty anal sacs on an outpatient. Oh, and you would love to go to the bathroom.

Most nurses will say yes, because they want to be helpful. It’s what nurses do. Let’s list a few other options:

  • You could take those X-rays, but your patients and clients would wait longer.
  • You could laugh hysterically in your doctor’s face, then mumble crazy things under your breath.
  • You could tell the doctor the tasks you already have to complete and ask them how they would like you to prioritize them. You’re not saying no, you’re simply asking, “What would you like me to do first?” You just deferred the final decision to the doctor. Chances are, they will realize they asked the wrong person.

6) Postpone the decision

We sometimes have to make an instant decision in social and professional situations, then we regret it. After all, we don’t like waiting and we don’t like to make people wait.

A little time and perspective can be your best friends. If your supervisor asks you to take on the open house project, but you already feel swamped, how do you respond?

Instead of saying yes to be a team player, be up front and say, “Thank you for thinking of me, let me get back to you about that.”

This doesn’t slam the door shut in their face, nor does it commit you. It gives you time to step back, evaluate your current responsibilities, and decide if you have the time and energy necessary to take on another project—and do it well.

Learn to politely say “let me think about it” and take back control over your time (and sanity).

7) Offer a solution

Pretend you’re a nurse. You are taking X-rays. One of the doctors asks if you can restrain for an exam. You look over the doctor’s shoulder to see a few of your coworkers doing busy work. Instead of saying no, quietly say, “I’m in the middle of taking X-rays right now. It looks like Samantha would be able to help you right away.”

If you cannot do something for someone, you can still help them find a more logical solution.

8) Negotiation

Pretend you’re an associate. You are asked to see Ms. Smith in room two. Yet, you already have five urgent things to do. Instead of saying no, negotiate: “I can see Ms. Smith if you can call Mr. Jones about his dog’s lab work and call the lab to ask which antibiotic I should choose.”

This takes the sting out of saying no, while providing a productive solution that solves everyone’s needs.

9) Stick to your priorities

You are invited to a charity dinner (a bargain: only $500 for a steak dinner). You are asked to sit on the board of the local shelter. You are offered to join the parent-teachers’ association.

Rather than adding to your overwhelmed schedule, borrow from my repertoire and reply:

“Dear Susie, Thank you so much for this invitation. I’m truly flattered! Unfortunately, I’ve got my priorities set for the year and this just doesn’t fit in. Again, thanks for thinking of me.”

10) Be bluntly honest

Veterinarians are asked to participate in surveys, research projects, panel discussions, dinner presentations, and so much more. Again, borrow from my private collection of canned answers, and reply honestly: “Hi Jim, I am completely overwhelmed and regret I will not have enough time for this exciting project. Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

Saying no carries significant stigma in our society. This is especially true in our profession, where our mission is to help others. Yet, there is a point where we need to realize that saying yes to every request is a recipe for exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout.

Everybody does not need instant access to you. Decide which boundaries you need to preserve your sanity. Then learn to say no, politely, firmly, and respectfully.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified, is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur whose traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. He also is cofounder of Veterinary Financial Summit, an online community and conference dedicated to personal and practice finance (

Kat Christman, a Certified Veterinary Technician in Effort, PA, contributed to this article.

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