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Picture it — a colleague asks if you can chair a new committee they’re starting. Without even pausing to think, the first words out of your mouth are, “Sure. I’d love to!” Flash forward, and you’re looking at emails piling up in your inbox and a flurry of appointments on your calendar. It suddenly hits you that you’re spread too thin. You know you need to say no after saying yes, but you’re hesitant to back out of the obligation after you’ve already given your word.
Saying no is never easy, but it’s particularly challenging after you’ve already said yes to a commitment. You may worry that backing out will burn bridges, cause you to be perceived as flaky or unreliable, or lead to you being labeled a poor team player. These fears are heightened for “sensitive strivers” — highly sensitive high-achievers — who tend to overthink situations and have a hard time setting boundaries.
If you can relate, then the thought of retracting your agreement and facing the brunt of another person’s disappointment or anger at you may be too much to bear. This reaction makes sense, since studies show that the brain makes no distinction between possible social rejection and physical pain. Instead, you grit your teeth and follow through with the commitment — sometimes at the expense of your own wellbeing, which backfires. Not only does it result in excess stress for you, but others may be able to sense that you’re distracted, overwhelmed, or resentful.
Whether you have overbooked yourself, realized you have a conflict, or otherwise can’t or don’t want to participate in a project, it’s essential to uncommit gracefully. Doing so will keep your reputation intact and your relationships strong. Here’s how to go about saying no after you’ve already said yes with tact and professionalism.
Consider the cost.
Before you deliver the news, make sure that backing out is in fact the right decision. Consider the opportunity cost. For example, let’s say you’ve said yes to a new initiative from your boss, but now you’re having second thoughts about participating. Evaluate how crucial the project is to key business priorities. If the initiative would give you exposure to other parts of the company or allow you to build social capital or new skills, then it may be worth the sacrifice. However, if the costs outweigh the benefits (such as the impact on your personal life or your current projects), then it’s better to withdraw.
Shift your perspective.
If you’re paranoid that saying no after you’ve already said yes will make you appear irresponsible, embrace the fact that it would be selfish and inappropriate to follow through on the task knowing you couldn’t complete it. You may feel like you’re being generous and helpful by agreeing, but if you can’t follow through on your promises, it’s not a recipe for high performance, personal happiness, or strong relationships. Plus, consider the positive traits you display when you back out gracefully. You exemplify strong prioritization, time management, and transparent communication — all qualities of powerful leadership.
Be diplomatic but truthful.
When it comes time to deliver your message, be assertive and clear without overexplaining. In other words, aim to be direct, thoughtful, and above all else, honest. For example, if you were pulling out of your friend’s committee, here’s what you might say: “When I said I could join the committee last month, I fully believed I had enough bandwidth to do a great job. After taking a closer look at my calendar, I realized I’ve overextended myself and there are several professional commitments I can’t move. This means I won’t be able to participate as chair.”
Providing a short explanation or justification as to your reasoning can help your withdrawal be better received. For instance, you could explain, “I know we talked about me joining as committee chair, but when I agreed I didn’t expect a big project would be assigned to me at work. Because of that, I need to decline.” In the case of backing out of the initiative with your boss, you could share, “I’ve had the chance to review my priorities and this new project would stop me from contributing to my core job responsibilities at the highest level. That wouldn’t be the right — or best — decision for myself or the team, so I have to respectfully change my yes to a no.”
Preserve the relationship.
It’s appropriate to apologize and take responsibility for any mistake, misunderstanding, or simply overextending yourself. After all, the other person was counting on you and may have been making plans around your participation. In the case of withdrawing from the committee, you could say, “I’m sorry for any inconvenience this causes. It means a lot that you thought of me for this opportunity and I’m rooting for it to be a success. I can’t wait to hear how everything goes.” Expressing gratitude and ending on a positive tone shows care and compassion.
Offer an alternative.
Propose a different timeline or to reschedule to a new date if you genuinely want to help. Take a raincheck and leave the door open to say yes in the future by saying, “After revisiting my schedule, I need to change my decision and decline this invitation right now. But please keep me in mind for the future. Would you reach out again in a few months?”
You can also avoid leaving the person in a lurch by suggesting an alternative. Perhaps you offer to introduce the person to a coworker who can help or a contractor they could hire. Maybe you redirect the person to a resource that can help them such as a community, podcast, or training material that can meet their needs or solve their problem.
Learn from it.
Backing out of commitments isn’t fun or comfortable, but it can provide a valuable lesson and an impetus to overcome people-pleasing tendencies that may be standing in your way of being more successful. Use this as a learning opportunity to build greater discernment around what you do — or don’t — agree to in the future. Going forward, try to say yes only to opportunities that excite you, and ones you have room for.
No matter how thoughtful you are, you may need to occasionally go back on a promise you’ve made or change your mind. Don’t make it a habit but do approach the situation with sensitivity and consideration to get the best possible outcome.