Friendship//

The Right and Wrong Way to Say “No” to a Friend

Research shows the way you decline plans might be damaging your friendships; here are some expert-backed tips to build them up instead.

A. and I. Kruk / Shutterstock
A. and I. Kruk / Shutterstock

Think back to the last time you regretfully declined a friend’s invitation to get dinner. Even when we wish that we could accept an offer, real-life constraints — time, money, bandwidth — sometimes get in the way.

We might not have control over the factors that compel us to turn down plans, but we do have control over how we respond. And, as it turns out, those responses might be an important factor in whether the friendship thrives or fizzles.

A recent study found that the excuse “I don’t have time” is considered less trustworthy and more damaging to friendships, compared with excuses relating to issues we’re perceived to have less control over — for example, being strapped financially — which can actually strengthen the bond.

“If we want to effectively manage our time and our money — two of life’s most scarce and valuable resources — we need to be able to say ‘no’ to things. But if we want to preserve our relationships, we have to do so the right way,” Grant Donnelly, Ph.D., lead researcher on the study, wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review.

Saying “no” to friends is never easy, but there are ways to do so in which both of you come out feeling confident about the relationship. A good way to approach this uncomfortable situation is to speak with compassionate directness — in other words, communicate honestly, but with empathy and consideration, in order to protect your friend’s feelings while respecting your own needs.

Here’s how to use compassionate directness to handle three common, tricky scenarios — and in doing so, preserve the strength of your friendships.

When You’re Declining an Invitation

Done properly, turning down a friend’s offer to spend time together doesn’t have to feel harsh — in fact, it can actually bring you closer. Preston Ni, M.S.B.A., communication coach and author of the book How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People, recommends taking what he calls a “soft on the person and firm on the issue” approach.

“Say something positive to affirm the relationship, and follow that with some boundaries or some solutions to the situation. [For example] say, ‘I’d love to spend time with you, unfortunately this weekend doesn’t work for me. How about next weekend?’” Ni suggests. Framing your response this way shows your friend that you care about them and value their time, while respecting your own schedule.

If you’re declining plans with someone you don’t know very well (for example, a new friend or co-worker), or don’t feel comfortable sharing a lot of personal details, Donnelly suggests using the excuse, “I don’t have energy tonight.”

“It’s more effective to decline by saying you ‘don’t have energy’ versus ‘don’t have time,’ because people perceive energy to be less controllable than time,” he wrote in Harvard Business Review.

If You Haven’t Spent Much Time With Them Recently

Friendships require time and energy to thrive; unfortunately, these two things are often in short supply. If you frequently find yourself in the position of turning down plans — even if the reasons are valid — you might want to rethink how you’re investing your time, and open up an honest dialogue with your friend.

“While self-care is a priority, consistently making choices that isolate a friend can be received as negative,” Shainna Ali, Ph.D., mental health clinician and educator, tells Thrive. But, “it doesn’t have to mean you develop a pattern of ignoring their needs simply to tend to your own.”

She suggests talking with your friend to come up with a compromise, and checking in frequently to make sure your friend knows that you still care about the relationship — even if you aren’t always available in person.

During a Rough Patch

Being in a fight with a close friend can feel like a Catch 22; you want to resolve things, but attempting to do so before you’re both ready might cause the situation to spiral downward.

How do you say “no” if your relationship is already on the rocks? Ni suggests using one of four approaches.

“I think the key is to go back to being soft on the person and firm on the issue. In this case, soft on the person also includes taking care of your own needs,” he tells Thrive. “If you’re mad at a friend and they want to talk, but you aren’t quite ready, you can say, ‘‘I prefer to take some time before talking about this;’ or, ‘It’s important to me to take some time to calm down before talking about this.’”

He recommends following those statements up with an offer to continue the dialogue at a later time.

These are all different ways to say no diplomatically, Ni says. Taking the time to do so shows your friend that you care about your relationship, but need to take time for yourself as well.

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