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Saying no—without the drama

There are times when you have an enquiry from someone you just know you won’t like working with. It might be the attitude or tone that comes across in the emails, the wording or what the person is asking for (or not). Regular readers may remember the phone call I had one day where the caller spoke at 100 mph, name dropped and bragged about her ‘wonderful’ book then finished abruptly and hung up. I’ll never know what that was all about. At the other end of the scale was the enquirer who sounded lovely, but wanted my copywriting skills on a specialist subject I wouldn’t touch at any price so a swift, polite refusal was necessary.

Sometimes, you just have to say no.

Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

There is another type of enquiry where saying no is harder; this is often from an existing client, though not always. You advertise your services but they expect you to do other things. Now flexibility and customer service is one thing, but spreading yourself out into unfamiliar areas you are not experienced or qualified in can leave you a jack of all trades, and heading for failure. Tom Peters in his best-selling book In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies* put it succinctly—“stick to the knitting.” In other words, keep to what you’re good at. It’s a fundamental rule of economics too; do what you do well and pay others to do the rest. There are lots of good reasons to do this:

  • You are spared unnecessary worry;
  • You will maintain your reputation;
  • Your core business won’t be neglected;
  • You remain in control.

Saying no to someone who is asking for a service you can’t provide because of say, the topic or timing, can be a positive thing. Saying no followed by some suggested details of people who could help will take away the sting. Freelance editors and proofreaders will often pass work to someone they trust if they can’t fit in an unscheduled client job. We all have specialist areas so the element of competition is limited and working alone, we all have uneven workloads through the year. Your potential client may be taken by surprise that you can’t/won’t take on the job but if you point them in the right direction they will often remember that and come back to you at a later date, with a different proposal. Of course there’s always one that you really don’t want to deal with for any money but there are ways of dealing with this, with tact and dignity. Saying no should never degenerate into drama. Keep it professional and helpful and saying no will NOT mean:

  • Nobody will ever use you again;
  • You won’t be able to eat this month;
  • Nothing else will come up;
  • You have let someone down;
  • You need to throw a hissy fit.

So keep your cool, stick to what you do competently, don’t spread yourself too thinly and learn to say no—without the drama.

*Peters, T.J., & Waterman, R.H. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies. New York: Harper & Row    

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