When we are developing our careers in uncertain times we can struggle with saying ‘no’ when asked to take on a new challenge whether that is an internal project or something outside work.

I struggle with saying “no” myself especially as my livelihood depends on maintaining a personal brand that says, “yes, I will take that on and deliver.”

Yet there are times when an opportunity is not a good match for our skills or our schedule. It is better to say “no” than do a less than stellar job and never be asked to work on a project by that person again.

In tougher times, we can also feel guilty that we are being offered an opportunity when we know others would welcome a bit of extra work or responsibility even though it would be too much of a stretch for us to take on the task or project. As the employment market regains strength, no one wants to look ungrateful or like they are taking what they have for granted.

However, there is a way to say “no” without burning any bridges. Follow this advice and you may even strengthen the relationship that is already there.

Rather than just saying “no”, try “can I think about it?”

You don’t want to waste anyone’s time but rather than give a flat “no” ask for a little time to consider the option but manage expectations upfront.

Tell the person, “Thank you so much for thinking of me. I am not sure I can take this one on right now but can I think it through and come back to you tomorrow?”

This will signal that you find the offer interesting and are truly grateful for being considered. It will also give you time to think about how you can help. Take no more than a day if possible. Maybe you can think of a comparable or even more suitable person? Or maybe there is a service you know about that could perform the task at a reasonable price that your contact or colleague doesn’t know about. You may even be able to provide the perfect “how to” instructions to help them get the job done on their own.

Who else in your network could take on the task?

I was recently offered a speaking engagement in another state by an established contact. The offer to be part of a live debate at a business school came via email. I loved the idea but I knew I didn’t have the time. I was tempted just to email back my apologies but instead I suggested we chat by phone so I could hear more. Once on the phone, I got the details I needed to confirm that while I would need to pass  on the opportunity, I could suggest someone who would be perfect for the team and who also lives in the city where the event is to be held later this year. The woman organizing the event was ecstatic.

I didn’t hand over my contact until I had contacted him first to confirm his interest. He is and I know he will do a great job.  I was able to help both contacts and I also wasn’t left feeling like I had let anyone down.

Something else might come of it

The other reason not to simply shut down the conversation with a “no” or stress yourself out with an ill advised “yes” is that there might be a more suitable opportunity waiting.

For example, in helping my contact find a suitable person for the debating team, we stayed chatting about other events she was planning and came across something I would be more suited to and which also fits my schedule. By helping my contact find a speaker for the debate, I maintained my standing with her and got a new gig for myself. I hasten to add that I would have been happy just to help but the new opportunity was a bonus.

Could you do part of the task?

A friend was approached by an influential senior manager from another team. The senior manager asked if my friend could work on a specific short term project in his spare time. My friend asked if he could think the offer over although with a new baby at home, he knew helping out in the way the senior manager wanted would be out of reach right now. However, he also knew it was a great project and a great chance to work with a senior manager he respects.

Then an idea struck him. He had been mentoring a junior colleague who he believes has great potential. He suggested the more junior person but offered to mentor her mostly during his lunchtimes. Both the more senior and junior person were really happy with the arrangement and my friend will still play a key role in the project and earn a bit of kudos.

Even if your offer of help is not what someone is after the fact you have taken an interest and attempted to find a solution keeps your “can do” personal brand intact.


Kate Southam has been giving people advice on careers for 13 years. She has been the editor of a career website, author of a syndicated newspaper column and remains a regular blogger. She also continues to coach individuals as well as provide commentary on careers and workplace issues to TV, radio and magazines. Kate is also a communications consultant advising businesses. Follow Kate on Twitter @KateSoutham.