Use these scripts to avoid meetings without being rude

“I don’t have to go to that meeting?”
“I don’t have to go to that meeting?”
Image: REUTERS/Mark Makela
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Q: I constantly get emails from people who are in town in two months and want to know if I have any availability to grab a coffee: How do I just say no to a meeting request?

Dear Busy Bee,

Learning to say “yes” more frequently to others comes with benefits like a bigger professional network, but as any successful working pro knows, learning to say “no” is an equally important skill in today’s jam-packed working world. So how can you field all those incoming emails or LinkedIn requests (especially from strangers), and be respectful of those who reached out, without burning bridges? Until they invent 30-hour workdays, the answer is to learn how to say both “yes” and “no” in one fell swoop.

In most cases (with exceptions such as obvious form letters and inquiries from a suddenly reappearing “long-lost uncle in Nigeria”), a response is merited. You should begin with “Thanks! Appreciate you dropping a line…” But if you don’t have the time to take the call, or want to field the meeting request? It’s OK to follow these statements with qualifiers, such as:

  • “However, I’m on deadline—could you follow up in a few weeks’ time?” If the person truly needs to reach you, or feels there’s merit in the connection, he or she won’t be shy about reaching out again. By setting a boundary everyone can understand and keeping exact timing ambiguous (strangers can’t expect to be privy to the specifics of your schedule), you can simultaneously create space for yourself and test to see if they’re truly serious about connecting.
  • “Although right now, I’m incredibly busy at work, and I’m confining my calendar to existing appointments. Thank you for your understanding—perhaps we might connect later down the road?” Again, pushing the timeline out while remaining ambiguous leaves room for other opportunities and buys both parties time to decide whether there’s true merit to be had in pursuing a conversation.
  • “But my schedule is jam-packed at the moment, and the soonest it’ll free up is 5 pm on [choose a date/time several months out into the future].” By sending a simple message—that you’re swamped, and if others would like your time, they’d best have something important to say—you can further weed out the serious from the spammers.
  • “Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the best person to speak to about this. You might want to talk with my colleague [John/Jane Doe] or speak with [insert company name here], the agency that represents us for these types of requests. They’re more familiar with the topic and can get you a decision sooner.” Call it delegation or deflection, but if someone else is better equipped to field the topic, there’s no shame in pointing others in the right direction.
  • “Alas, I’m going triple-time on a project right now. Is there something in particular you’d like to discuss? A bullet-point overview would be especially helpful.” We all know what it’s like to be strapped for time, and asking these simple questions (a.k.a. what would you like to discuss and how can I help?) can often help you get a 30-second summary of what might otherwise have taken a 30-minute call to explain.

In any event, I recommend keeping the flow of information via email open (at least at first, until you have a better idea of the ask). Often you’ll find that typing is a far more succinct and efficient way to field requests than meeting for coffee or scheduling a phone call.

While you can’t field every incoming request for your time and attention, a few simple strategies can help you weed out important queries from less high-priority communiques, determine whether it’s worth following up, and make a more direct one-on-one connection.

Scott Steinberg is the author of The Business Etiquette Bible.

Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit to Scott by emailing work@qz.com.