How to say no to a nice request

Life of Yes℠ Disclaimer

If you take anything away from this, let it be: “You do you.”
These are my thoughts, my opinions, what works for me. You may disagree. You may do the complete opposite. Cool, cool. I’m not saying you’re wrong; I’m not saying I’m right. My way isn’t the way; it’s the way for me. You shouldn’t feel bad or wrong if you don’t do what I do. I also hope you don’t make others feel bad or wrong for doing what they do.
You do you. Life of Yes℠.

One of the most oft-asked questions amongst my peers is some variation of “How do you respond to coffee requests?”

You know the ones. You’ve probably made such requests two or thirteen times —
“Can I buy you a drink? I’d love to learn more about you.”
“Can I pick your brain about XYZ? So inspired by what you do.”
“Will you be on my podcast/in my book/on my blog?”
“So nice to meet you! I’d love to grab coffee…”
Bane of my existence. Not that people ask me for coffee. I mean, flattering!, especially cause it’s usually of the “your story is so inspiring/interesting, you’re fun, I wanna hang” ilk. That HCP (high-class problem) I throw around all the time? Definitely applicable here.
But bane because:
  • I feel (well, used to feel) like a horrible person when saying no
  • I’d so agonize over responses, letting them sit in my inbox, stressing me out every time I saw them
  • so many others can make you feel bad for not saying yes (and I don’t mean the people asking, I mean peers and such)
  • I remember how many people said yes to my coffee asks when I first started Mac & Cheese which underlines the feeling like a horrible person. Hypocrite sensations aren’t fun.
  • I do want to help others, just not by getting coffee
But bane no longer. I figured out a solution that I’ve been using for years and it’s worked wonderfully*. I’ll be writing a chapter in my book on this, but in the meantime, here’s my take (and can you give me a book deal?).

Bottom line: do what you want to do.

Bonus if you can figure out how to do that in a way that is nice and helpful and truthful. That’s the stuff.
To be honest, often I just don’t want to get coffee with you. There are so many other things I’d rather be doing. It has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with how busy I am. Sometimes, yes, I don’t want to get coffee because deadlines! Plate full! But sometimes I don’t want to get coffee cause I’d rather walk my foster pup, bike with Best Friend, Netflix binge.
But the askers don’t need to hear all this. I don’t need to explain my no to them in depth. And responding, “I’d rather nap than get coffee with you” is probably not the best tactic.

My Solution Version 1.0

I created “Coffee with Mac & Cheese” as a service, where anyone who asked me to coffee could pay (I think I charged $15?) to join an intimate group of us (3-5) for 90 minutes at a coffeehouse. I set up the tete a tetes and facilitated, though they didn’t need much facilitation; they were lovely casual, relaxed conversation like you’d have with friends with the difference being that it was strangers instead of people you knew. And they paid to be there. I did this for a few years until Coffee didn’t bring me joy anymore and I chopped off that branch of the Mac & Cheese tree.
But the requests kept coming, more and more frequently, as I spoke more, as my online presence grew, as I became more visible. I needed another solution.
Simply saying “No” didn’t feel right. Simply saying “Yes” didn’t feel right either. 

My Solution Version 2.0

  1. Add a Canned Response in Gmail (one of my favoritest tech tools especially for emails you have to write repeatedly/you don’t enjoy writing). Every time I get an email coffee request, this is how I respond. You can see my actual Coffee Canned Response here. I include alternative suggestions. I include suggestions that are me-related and some that are not; the ones that are me-related, I include some that cost money and some that are free, so it doesn’t come across as money-grubbing.
  2. Put how to hire me pages and “Can I buy you coffee so I can pick your brain?” as an FAQ on my website. These additions have been hugely helpful in cutting down both in asking me to do things for free (Grrrr. A whole ‘nother blog post) and in coffee requests.
  3. Point them to someone else — so much caution with this one!!! Do not, I repeat, do not, do an email intro between two people unless you’ve asked the person you’ll be passing the asker onto and they’ve said yes. This can be a lazy, not thought out solution. Don’t just pass the buck. Put genuine thought into a referral. Be protective of people’s contact info and time just as you want them to be of yours.
  4. Share my knowledge on questions I get all the time in ways that work for me
  • Write in depth blog posts (like this one)
  • Keep my FAQ page updated
  • Hold webinars
  • Teach classes
  • Consult
It’s nice to have somewhere to immediately point people, both of the free variety and of the pay me variety.
It’s easier to say no when you can say it in a helpful, friendly way. In my opinion, my combination of above does that.

*It’s worked wonderfully

I’m sure someone has been put off or irked or at least taken aback by my response. You can’t feel bad or worry about that person. You’re never going to please everyone. Please yourself. Hopefully it’s in a way that is also beneficial to others so we get that win-win cycle going.

Other People’s Solutions

I’ve kept track of tactics other people take because I find it really interesting how folks travel this path. My friend Neal has all his hands in all the pots, like running for Mayor of Chicago, so meets all the people; here’s his struggle and take

Some of their tactics:

  • Say yes to every Coffee request
  • Hold office hours — “I’m available via phone/at this location Wednesdays 2-4pm”
  • Have a phone call — “I don’t do coffees but would happy to chat for 15, 30 minutes”
  • Engage in an email discussion — “Feel free to send me a few questions and I’ll answer them as best as I can”
  • Video yourself addressing a topic you repeatedly get asked about and share that clip when appropriate
  • Respond via a video specific to the asker — “Sure, just tell me what you want to know about and I’ll make a 5 minute video about it. Send me your top 2-3 questions and I’ll answer them.”
  • Lie — “I’m really busy right now so can’t meet up, but we can reconnect down the road…” “I wish I could but…”
  • Tell the (kinda) truth — “I’m really busy right now so can’t meet up, but we can reconnect down the road…” “I wish I could but…” “Now’s not good but I’ll reach out if I have time later…”
  •  Set boundaries and limits — “I’ll do 4 coffees a month”
“Say yes to every request” makes me break out in hives. That sounds horrible. As does Office Hours. I don’t want to add more to my calendar. As does the phone. I hate the phone. As does inviting more email, especially email discussions. As does video, as that’s just not my medium of choice (though it’s the medium, according to everyone; one of these days I’ll get on board). As does lying. Cause, lying. As does the kinda truth. Where you are actually busy and say “let’s meet up later” but don’t really mean that or want to. That just opens the door for them to understandably come back. Unless you actually are busy now and are fine with getting together down the road. But I find that’s often not the case.
If I’m the one asking, I’d much rather you just say “No” and have me go my merry way. I hate feeling like I’m bothering or imposing. The last thing I want to do is add to my To Do List “Circle back to NAME to see if she can get coffee now”.
None of these solutions are solutions for me. But they work for others.
Bottom line number two: you always have choice. Choose the best choice for you.

Topic Tangents

I hate the phrase “pick your brain” and the word “quick” when used in making an ask, e.g. “Quick question for you…” They usually imply you want something from me, usually something for free, and that you know I do what you’re asking for a living thus deeming my knowledge of value but not enough to pay for it. “Quick” has an apologetic bent to it — “I know you’re busy, know you get these all the time, but I’m gonna ask anyway…” Which rubs me the wrong way. The question is often quick to ask, not quick to answer. “Pick your brain” and “quick” immediately put me in a negative headspace. Same for the word “grab” a la “Can we grab lunch?” Food for thought when making asks.

Another tangent is how to deal with friend/connection requests from people who aren’t your friends/connections. Another Canned Response for me. Actually, a Text Expansion (another techtool favorite of mine. Sanity-saving! I use aText). I type “;canFB” — for “canned Facebook” — and that snippet expands into this. I use a similar response on LinkedIn.

Keep in mind

Many people don’t realize how many asks you get. When you share that you get 2, 7, 17 a month, easier to understand your no. (Though even if you get 1 a year, if you don’t want to do it, don’t)
Many people don’t realize that “pick your brain” “quick” “grab” and whatever other phrases and words drive you batty are irksome to you. Have grace and perspective in your response.
Coffee in my case is often asking me for my services for free. Some people don’t realize this. They don’t know I “do” this for a living, via 1 on 1s, workshops, webinars, etc. So I include a bit about these services and applicable links in my response. Some turn into clients, some I never hear from again.
You don’t need to justify your no. I love Isabel’s take on saying no —

(Ha, please don’t friend request her now cause you also loved above. Follow her instead.)

In sum

I’ve asked and still ask for coffee.
I’m not saying don’t ask for coffee. Ask. But put thought into the ask and don’t be offended if the response is no.
I’m not saying I’ll always say no to coffee. But I usually will.
There are many smart people with opposing views on this, like Why You Should Take That Coffee Meeting. So well written. Very valid points. Not for me. That doesn’t mean I’m not a good person. Or a nice person. Or a caring person. I foster pups! I mentor! I’ve been sending a Rwandan brother and sister to school for 10 years! I created BC Cares, Chicago-area Boston College alum giving back! I’ve built a business that’s responsible for marriages! Babies! Friendships! Soaring confidence! Standing ovations! Not that any of that matters or should matter. What matters is I’ve found a way to deal with something that was causing me great angst and stress in a way that feels right to me.
Me do me. Hopefully in ways that still support others.
Sometimes the best way to live a Life of Yes℠ is to say no.

Forthcoming blog posts based on this blog post

As I penned this musing, so many other topics came up, ones I’m often approached about, ones I’m so intrigued by, ones that warrant their own musing.

  • How to do Cold Intros — summary: don’t
  • How to make an ask — summary: with thought and respect for others
  • How to deal with “Can you do XYZ for free? — summary: say no

Other places to noodle around if you’re into this topic

If you have your own Coffee solutions, would love to hear them in the comments.