Saying No to Networking 

When your inbox is swamped with requests to “get coffee” or “pick your brain,” there’s no way you can keep up and still keep your sanity. But you don’t want to be rude or unhelpful — so, what do you do?

First, prioritize the people you will always say “yes” to, such as your industry besties. Next, decline invitations from people you’ll have no guilt over, such as those you’ve never spoken to or who don’t work in your field. (Remember the following phrase: “I don’t think I’m the right person to help you with your request.”) For those last in-betweeners who you feel require more than a “thanks, but no thanks,” here some polite ways to decline.

  1. Give a reason. Whether it’s a heavy deadline or dealing with personal matters, we’ve all experienced times when we feel like we’re barely keeping our heads above water — and we all understand that others go through the same thing. Giving a polite decline with a small reason (not the whole story!) can help you feel better about saying “no” and comes across as professionally respectful.

    “Hello, Becky. I’m unable to meet you for coffee as I’m under a huge deadline for the Rose Bowl. Good luck with your project! Best, Bucky.”

  2. Offer to help next time. Sometimes, established connections might reach out at the last minute requesting a favor. Even if you like this person and want to maintain a connection with them, their emergency is not your emergency. You can politely decline with an offer to help in the future and an expression of interest in their success.

    “Hello, Goldie. Unfortunately, I’m unable to help you locate the ax this weekend. I have a mascot conference that I will be attending. I would be happy to help in the future if my schedule allows. Let me know how it goes! Best, Bucky.”

  3. Give them a connection to another contact. Your network is likely full of people with different levels of experience and availability. If you aren’t able to take on someone’s questions, refer them to another connection. Just be sure to check with that person first!

    “Hi, Testudo. My work schedule is currently a little hectic. I’m referring you to my colleague Purdue Pete, who may be able to help you with your questions about the conference. Best, Bucky.”

  4. Suggest a different option. Even if you don’t have time for a call or in-person meeting, you may know of another resource that contains the information your connection is looking for. Send it along and boom — an hour saved.

    “Hi, Brutus. Good question on which is more deadly: the buckeye or the badger. It so happens that uwalumni.com/careers just put out a great report on the subject. Best, Bucky.”

  5. Leave the door open. Every once in a while, requests come along that you would love to fulfill but simply can’t at the time. Respond to the request and ask if you can fulfill it in a few months’ time when you have more availability — they may say “yes!”

    “Hi, Nittany. I would love to participate in a dance-off video, but I am tied up with bowl season. Could we postpone until February? Best, Bucky.”

Remember: knowing how to say “no” can be a valuable professional skill, just like anything else that makes you better at your job. Don’t be afraid to develop it!

If you liked these tips and want to learn more about getting ahead in your career, check out the Career Resources Library at uwalumni.com/careers.