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Career Tips

Know how to say no

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
September 1, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 32


An illustration of a hand holding up a sign that reads "NO!"
Credit: Shutterstock

Turning down a request is hard, especially if it’s for something you would like to do or if it’s made by someone in authority. People often find themselves overworked and resentful because they agree to do things they didn’t actually want to do just because it was easier than saying no. While that may be easier in the moment, learning how to say no gracefully is a much better long-term strategy.

Just say it

You don’t have to explain why you’re saying no. Be polite, but direct: sometimes we soften “no” so much that the other person thinks we’re still considering—or, even worse, mistakes it for “yes.” It’s OK to want more information or time to decide, especially if the ask is a big one. If you do ask for more time, make sure the person knows when you will decide and if they should look for someone else in the meantime or if you are most likely to say “yes.”

Be brief but not brusque

You can soften the blow by adding an “I’m sorry” or “Thank you for thinking of me,” or even “Not at this time.” But use a phrase like this only if it’s what you really mean. You want to be truthful but not provide a point that can be refuted. If you say it’s not the right time, for example, you’re implying that you will answer in the affirmative the next time they make a similar ask, which may come along quickly.

When you give a reason

You may choose to back up your “no” with a specific reason, but you should be prepared for pushback and maybe even significant argument, especially when the request comes from your boss or someone else in authority. If you say you’re too busy, they’ll say it won’t take much time. If you say you don’t know how, they will say you can learn. And so on. Changing your reason or giving one reason on top of another makes you look insincere.

Offer an alternative

If you can’t do what is asked, is there some other way you can help? Identify what their need really is, and see if there is a small piece that you can take care of. Alternatively, you could recommend another person, or even another resource they could tap into, such as the local American Chemical Society section.

Stick to it

Once you’ve decided to turn down a request, do not go back on your answer. If you become known as someone who is easily persuaded to change their mind, people will not believe you when you say no in the future.

While saying no is (usually) not fun, it is sometimes necessary, so you need to learn to do it well. Remember that saying it now can leave you free to say yes to something else that may be bigger and better in the future. The more you practice, the easier it will get, so try saying no to small things now so that you’ll be ready to say it to the bigger ones later.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to


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