At some point or another, you’ve probably relied on free help from friends, relatives, or colleagues to get ahead in the professional world. Remember that time your friend from college gave you valuable career advice, or your BFF (who’s also a photographer) took free headshots for your new website? Chances are, you’ve done the same for your inner circle… and even for friends of friends.
But, what happens when you want to say no? Because you’re already overbooked; because you have no interest in doing [insert annoying professional favor here]; because you rather spend time binge-watching Game of Thrones. Whatever the reason, saying no can be awkward, and no one likes to do it.
Set your boundaries in advance
According to Sandy Weiner, a successful entrepreneur and Relationship Coach who helps women communicate effectively, when it comes to business favors, “Know in advance what you’re willing to do pro bono and what you want to get paid for.” Even when money isn’t the issue, it still helps to know what and for whom you’re willing to give up your precious time. This way, you’re not caught off-guard when the inevitable request comes in.
From personal experience, I know that coming up with the right policy can take some trial and error. Start by checking in with your emotions: do you feel drained, bitter, or stressed at the thought of saying yes to certain favors? Also, consider who’s making the request (is it a close friend, relative, or random acquaintance?) and how long the task will take (is it something you can do between your paid projects or will it eat into precious family and work time?).
Don’t forget to weigh the cons (a drain on your time) against any potential benefits of fulfilling the request (helping a friend, building good business karma, exposure for your business, etc). After a few trials runs, you’ll figure out the right balance for you.
Be clear if you want to get paid
If you have the time, how do you ask to be compensated by someone looking for free help? Having some scripts to use can help minimize any awkwardness. Here’s a template Sandy uses when she receives a request for free advice but wants to be valued for her time and expertise:
“Sounds like you’re looking for a coaching [or insert your specialty here] consultation. My rate is ___. Let me know if that works for you. If it does, I’ll look at my calendar and find a good time to meet.”
If you’re asked to work for free, you can change the first sentence to say: “I’m flattered that you’re seeking my services,” then proceed with the statement. You may be surprised: the person doing the asking may be willing to pay you!
If you say no, keep it short and sweet…
If you’re not interested in working with the particular individual at all—paid or unpaid—you can follow Lily Zhang’s advice (she’s a Career Development Specialist at MIT):
Express gratitude (“I’m flattered that you’re seeking my advice,” or “Thanks for thinking of me”) and then say, “I’m not taking on additional clients at the moment.”
If it’s a close friend, you may want to follow with a brief explanation. For example: “I’d like to help, but I’m really over-scheduled right now.”
A quick response also works well when you’re asked to pass on a resume or make an introduction, but you don’t feel comfortable doing so. According to Jodyne Speyer, empowerment guru and author of Dump ’Em: How To Break Up With Anyone From Your Best Friend to Your Hairdresser, “Say something like, ‘Listen, I’m not the right person,’ or ‘I’m not the right fit for this, but good luck.’”
Most of the time, the person making the request will move onto to someone else.
…then offer to help in other ways
You can sweeten the “no” by offering your assistance in other ways. For example, share the link to a helpful book or blog post or offer to respond to one or two pressing questions by email.
Michelle Robinovitz, a professional recruiter who gets inundated with calls for free help from job seekers and employers looking to fill an open position, advises that rather than saying “no,” she prefers to offer to keep her eyes and ears open and will make a connection if one happens to fall on her desk, but won’t conduct a formal search unless she’s compensated.
The point is: by offering an alternative, you’re actually helping them in the end.
Remember: saying yes to one thing is saying no to something else. While it may feel uncomfortable at the time, graciously and gently turning down a request will keep you in line with your values and available for the things that matter the most to you.