5 Ways to Turn Down Meetings and Set Better Boundaries
Know how to say “no” to protect your time
Meetings for work are integral. Whether in-person or online, these sessions ensure alignment and flow between team leaders and members; they serve as a great avenue, too, for collaboration and for getting a pulse of the team’s energy as you tackle a shared agenda.
As much as it is known that no one is absolutely obliged to attend every single meeting, especially if they aren’t key members and have other high-priority commitments to attend to, attendance in meetings tends to still be painted as essential, as an indicator of productivity. That said, meetings have all too often been used to gather people at the workplace for discussions that aren’t optimal, go off-tangent, or worse, function without an agenda. Ultimately, this chips away not only at a team member’s precious work hours, but mental energy as well.
Saying “no” to meetings may be uncomfortable granted this kind of social etiquette in place, but it’s important to reinforce healthy boundaries to help you focus on the important task at hand and to give you time for the things that matter. (Hey, your time is valuable, so you should be intentional with how you spend it!)
Developing the habit of saying “no” should only help you and your colleagues learn better time management, improve communication styles, and boost productivity in ways that aren’t reliant on busy work. Get that conversation going! Ahead are five efficient ways to respectfully decline meetings.
Evaluate if the meeting is necessary before saying “no.”
In some cases, people may find themselves unconfident to attend meetings because the purpose is unclear, making them feel right off the bat that it’s a potential waste of time. If you find yourself feeling that way, do a thoughtful evaluation of the meeting. Does the meeting come with a clear agenda set by the organizer? Request that they itemize this moving forward. Was the meeting set up in a hurry? If it requires you to move around essential tasks, ultimately knocking your schedule off its course, request to reschedule the meeting if possible. Lastly: is it necessary to meet at all or can things be discussed over email? Project briefs and team downloads for you to catch up on can easily be done via email. Then, propose to hop on a call should there be pressing clarifications.
This way, you and the organizer can respect both your time and needs, better managing everyone’s expectations. Analyzing whether a meeting requires your attendance not only saves you time in the long run but will also help you establish boundaries.
Offer alternatives and make reasonable compromises.
You can respond “no” and still leave a good impression by being proactive. If you were able to prepare in advance, bring this up with your teammate: Would it be possible to already forward your presentation so key presenters can do a pre-read and cover your segment? This applies when your contribution to a project or campaign wasn’t a major undertaking and can be explained by the key or point person.
Just as well, if you aren’t up to present, you can still contribute by requesting someone to record or cascade minutes of the meeting so you can review and know the next steps. You can offer to do the same for your colleague if ever they are unable to attend future meetings. This not only fosters the spirit of good teamwork but positive work dynamics as well.
Be direct with your “no” while staying polite.
If you’re worried about declining a meeting because this might offend someone, be assured that a polite and honest “no” is unlikely to cause a rift. Remain respectful and professional as you decline to preserve your working relationship with the meeting organizer.
If possible, provide an explanation for declining. While this is not always necessary, it can sometimes soften the blow of an outright refusal. It’s more convenient to say “no” if there are reasons that are easy to understand: a scheduling conflict, an emergency leave, or a prior scheduled meeting. However, there are other equally valid reasons to decline a meeting such as focusing on time-bound assignments ad even taking time to restore mental energy (like lunch breaks or breathing space in-between other meetings).
Prepare a response that you can use multiple times.
Last-minute meetings that can disrupt your schedule are unavoidable, but the person causing this interruption may not always be aware. If you decide that the meeting overlaps with your schedule or does not align with your priorities, just say “no.”
Being vocal about your boundaries takes time to practice, but a good tip to develop this is to prepare your responses. Pick respectful default one-liners that you can use in circumstances where you have to refuse. Some phrases to consider are: “My meeting calendar for this week is already full. Can we schedule on a different date?” or “Can you send a quick email brief to prime me about this meeting? I’m in the middle of finishing my work tasks. Are you free to talk another time?”
With the help of these response templates, you should feel more at ease the next time you decline.
Seek support from technology.
Relationships at work shouldn’t be conditional; the ideal scenario is that everyone respects each other’s time. But here’s the reality: people will better value your time if they know that you value it yourself. If you are unable to respond to emails within the workday (if you are out of the office or especially if out sick), set up your accounts to automatically notify messengers that you won’t be able to get back to them right away. You can modify the content of the automatic email response and set its duration until your return.
You can also opt to download useful apps such as Clockwise, to help you set boundaries for your schedules. With its auto-decline feature, Clockwise automatically refuses incoming meetings that overlap with the time slots already blocked for a different agenda or during the days when your schedule is full. With technology as an aid, you can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed with meetings and can manage your time better.
With these helpful tips in mind, remember that it is okay to say “no.” There may be moments you are unable to attend your meetings, but know that finding alternatives is always on the table.