Being immersed in Slack’s highly collaborative culture and an even closer-knit team, saying no to meetings used to be slightly terrifying. But when I realized my calendar wasn’t always working for me, I had to make some adjustments to my thinking and my RSVPs.
Whatever’s at the heart of your own “meeting decline guilt”—the patriarchy, low-key social anxiety or an unshakeable Midwestern politeness (to name a few personal examples)—I’m here to tell you that you don’t need it, or any other hesitations you may have.
Here are five reasonable, efficient, and totally steal-able ways to say “no” to meetings and get rid of your guilt for good.
1. Say no—then offer alternatives
Your response: “I won’t be able to make this, but [here’s a way I’ll still participate].”
If a flat-out “no” isn’t your style (more on that later), try building a solution into your response. Luckily, we’re living in an asynchronous world, which means that, more often than not, you can still contribute to a meeting without being there.
Here are a few ideas for how you can still be part of a meeting, even if you don’t attend:
- Ask someone to record the meeting so you can catch up later
- Designate a partner to take notes that you can digest afterward
- Write out or record anything you wanted to bring or present and share with the group prior to the meeting
You can also offer to do this for your fellow teammates when they can’t make it. Yay for reciprocity and helping each other out!
2. Explain your “no”
Your response: “I can’t make this because I have [insert obligation here].”
While an explanation isn’t always necessary, sometimes it can soften the blow of a hard no. I find it easier to say “no” when I have a legitimate reason why—a doctor’s appointment, conflicting meeting, pet troubles, whatever.
Yet there are plenty of legitimate reasons to decline a meeting that extend beyond tangible items on your calendar. You might need:
- Time for focus or heads-down work (AKA “maker time,” or “focus time”)
- Physical time and/or mental space between other meetings and obligations
- To preserve your sacred lunch hour, routine, etc.
Sometimes, even if you technically have the time, you just won’t be able to bring your best or whole self to a meeting. And that’s okay. In the long run, valuing your time and understanding what you need to succeed won’t just give you a reason to say no to meetings. It will help you get better at your job.
3. Use your “no” to challenge the status quo
Your response: “I’m not sure about [the purpose/my role/other questions] of this meeting. Can you tell me more?”
This one might seem like an acceptance in disguise at first, but stay with me.
Meetings are a waste of time. It’s our favorite office joke. (See also: This should have been an email.) Statistically, many of them are! But changing meeting culture has to start somewhere. Why not start with you?
If you’re considering saying no to a meeting because you (gasp!) simply don’t want to go, channel that energy into a thoughtful examination of the meeting itself. Why don’t you want to go? Is this meeting a repeat of another meeting? Is it the kind of meeting where you feel talked at instead of talked to? Is it really necessary to meet face-to-face? Do you feel like maybe other people also don’t want to go to that meeting?
If you find these or similar issues to be true, consider using your RSVP to raise your concerns. You might pair your “no” or “yes” with:
- A request for an agenda
- A request to discuss your concerns about the meeting
- A suggestion for a meeting alternative
- A suggestion to change the meeting cadence (time, length, roles, etc.)
The creative team here at Slack regularly discusses the structure and timing of our recurring meetings, and more often than not, it turns out I’m not alone in my grumblings. If you want to raise concerns about a particular meeting but you don’t want to do it alone, try getting a gut check from a teammate. Then recruit them to help you drive a wider conversation.
Most everyone is happy to find a way to take one more thing off their calendars. You can be the hero they need!
In the long run, valuing your time and understanding what you need to succeed won’t just give you a reason to say no to meetings. It will help you get better at your job.
4. Copy + paste your “no”
Your response: [Templated decline that’s ready to go in a moment’s notice]
Here’s a pro tip I stole from my manager, who has been instrumental in helping me overcome my fear of saying no to meetings: Pre-write your response.
That’s right. Have your “no” ready to go, saved in your drafts, and easily accessible for those moments you might falter. You might use one of the responses above, or something from the one below. Pick something simple, easy to alter with details if needed, and full of personality that reflects you—and then copy and paste with ease.
5. Just say no.
Your response: “I won’t be able to attend this.” or “I can’t make this one.”
That’s it—that’s the tip. No excuses. No apology. I challenge you to try saying no in a way that makes you just a little bit uncomfortable—if only to empower you to decline other meetings with greater ease and confidence.
To be honest, even typing this suggestion makes me nervous. But it forces me to consider the unwritten rules of work and social etiquette we all navigate. What exactly is stopping me from saying no? What internal mechanism calls on me to apologize for having a legitimate reason to not go to a meeting? Why must I feel like one reason is less legitimate than another?
You’re good at your job—no, I bet you’re great at it. You’re competent, thorough, and you contribute valuable ideas and work. When you say no to a meeting, the world remains intact, and so does your reputation, because attending meetings is just one facet of all the incredible work you do. And the people you work with know that, because you show it every day.
So get out there—or rather, don’t. And “no” away, your way.
Lisa Plachy is a Copywriter on Slack’s Creative Design team who weaves her words into all kinds of creative projects, from events to brand guidelines to the occasional tweet.