How to say no without coming off as a jerk

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Your inboxes and ears are filled with requests from clients, friends, family, co-workers, subscribers, people in your social network, and others who want something from you but can’t or won’t hire you.

How do you say no without feeling guilty or appearing to be a jerk?

First, make sure you’re clear about your areas of responsibility, so you can focus on what and who are important. If building stronger relationships with your clients is important to you, giving a client 30 or 60 minutes of your time without charge might be a very good use of your time.

Second, do what you can to manage the expectations of the people in your life. Your new client kit or welcome letter should spell out things like how you bill, when you will respond to calls or emails, and what to do in case of emergency (and what constitutes one).

Make sure your website has answers to FAQs and tell visitors you can’t respond to every comment or request.

If you have partners or work on projects with other people, clarify who handles what, deadlines, and other agreed standards.

Third, understand that you don’t have to respond to every request. You can (and should) ignore spam, and just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it.

If you feel the need to respond, do it in a way that validates the other person but makes it clear that you can’t drop everything to give them what they want. Respond with one or two sentences, to let them know you’re not ignoring them, but don’t lead them to believe there’s more to come.

Fourth, tell them “not now” instead of no. Tell them you need more information or time to think about what they’re asking, or you’re not sure when you’ll be able to do it because of your other commitments. They may find other ways to get what they need, or realize they no longer need it.

Finally, when you turn someone down, do what you can to direct them to another person or resource that might help. Refer them to another lawyer, give them a website or two, or a book you recommend.

The key is to make people feel that while you can’t help them, you heard them and support them and invite them to contact you again.

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