Learning to say NO

There was a time when I was working at Spring when we found that many of our partners stopped approaching us with relevant projects + opportunities. When we asked why, they responded

“You all look so busy!”

“There are so many projects that you all are working on!”

“I don’t know what your area of focus is.”

It is equally important to learn how to reject others and turn down offers. Saying NO will allow you to FOCUS by reducing distractions from trivial tasks and things that don’t align with your mission.

Many of us struggle with saying NO. Why?

  1. We naturally avoid conflict.
  • We believe that by saying NO, we invite criticism and cause others to be angry with us.
  1. We want to belong.
  • By saying YES, we believe that they will welcome us more readily.
  1. We’re afraid that it will make us look bad.
  2. We feel guilty/embarrassed for disappointing others.

It’s so much easier to say YES to avoid this short-term discomfort.

But saying YES too often comes with some drawbacks:

  • Every YES you commit to = a NO to something else, you only have so much time.
  • You may start to compromise on self-care and burnout in an attempt to please and service others.
  • This may lead to a buildup of resentment — “does he/she think that I’m a free service?”

So how can you build that NO muscle?

Slow down your YES.

Build habits and create natural barriers that will prevent you from immediately saying yes. With more time to consider and evaluate your options, you’ll feel more prepared to justify your NO.

Below are some examples:

  • Bringing a partner with you to negotiations so that you can take the time to discuss before committing.
  • Never commit to anything without first checking your calendar to ensure that you have the time/resources for it.
  • Create an opportunity evaluation checklist to assess new projects/ideas:
  1. Does it align with my mission/objectives?
  2. Do they share my values?
  3. Do I have the budget for it?
  4. Do I have the time for it?
  5. How significant will this project be? What are the long-term implications and residual value?

NO is better than an absence of response

Understand that the other party would much rather hear a direct NO, rather than have you deliberate indefinitely.

“The best answer is a YES, the second-best answer is a NO, the worse answer is MAYBE”

Don’t waste their time or yours.

If you’re worried about hurting them by saying NO, be supportive by providing more information or your reasons so that they may improve for the future.

E.g. If an entrepreneur is trying to raise money, and you’re an investor but don’t think he/she is a fit. Tell them WHY and when to re-approach you — No, but come back when:

  • You have hit X customers/$X in revenue.
  • You have found a co-founder.
  • Or even — no, your pitch was terrible and it doesn’t give me a good impression of you. Fix your pitch or you’ll have the same problem with other investors.

Don’t over apologize, you don’t need permission to say NO. Overjustification can trigger defensive behaviour and invites criticism. Instead, say NO in a supportive manner, you’ll create a situation where everybody wins.

Offer alternatives

Only if you want to agree but current terms/conditions don’t make it favourable.

  • Refer them to someone else who is a better fit (if that is an option and if you are comfortable with referring them).
  • Provide a counteroffer on your own terms.
  • But be careful of making it only about the money — I’ve seen entrepreneurs try to reject projects that they find really boring by throwing a high price, only to be surprised that the other party accepted. They then end up begrudgingly saying YES to a project that they are not passionate about or working with a troublesome client that they really did not want to take on. Money isn’t the whole picture.

Evaluate for alignment

As mentioned in the new project evaluation checklist above, but to reiterate to emphasize the importance of doing this:

  • Do they share your values?
  • Will this contribute to your mission/objectives?
  • Even if not directly, will you learn something that can contribute/accelerate your growth in the right direction?

If the answer is NO to all of the above, why are you even saying yes?

When you SHOULD say YES.

Of course, everything in moderation. There is a right time and place to say YES to the right things.

Say YES when it has the potential to:

  • Invite collaboration with others who share your values & mission.
  • Allow you to empower and affirm others.
  • Give you the opportunity to learn something new.
  • It allows you to stretch and challenge yourself
  • Don’t be afraid of going outside your comfort zone — remember, don’t say NO just because you don’t feel ready. You will never truly feel ready for most new challenges.

If you’re ever in doubt between a YES or a NO, let it boil down to alignment — does it contribute to your mission? Is it in alignment with your core values?




Startup go-to-market and sales specialist, father, avid packrafter

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Chang Chin Hing

Chang Chin Hing

Startup go-to-market and sales specialist, father, avid packrafter

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