Uncommiting Gracefully: How to Say “No” After Saying “Yes”

It's not easy to say “no,” and it's even more complicated if you are already committed to the task you wish to decline. But this guide will help.

Picture this.

Your departmental head requests that you chair a new task force. Without a second thought, the first words you utter are, “Sure. I’ll do it!” Flash forward, and you have a flurry of appointments and emails in your inbox battling for your attention. It suddenly dawns on you: you’re spread too thin!

You know you have to say no after committing, but you’re facing difficulties backing out of the obligation since you already gave your word.  

It’s not easy to say no, but it’s particularly complicated after you’ve accepted and committed yourself.

You may worry that withdrawing can burn bridges or other team members will label you as unreliable, flaky, or a poor team player.

These worries are enhanced if you’re a highly sensitive striver who overthinks situations and has difficulties setting boundaries.

The thought of backing out and facing the brunt of your departmental lead’s disappointment or rage may be too much to bear. This reaction is understandable.

Typically, the brain can’t distinguish between possible social exclusion and physical pain. So you’re left to grit your teeth as you try completing the task you’re committed to, sometimes at the expense of your welfare, which flops.

Not only does this cause you more stress, but other team members can see that you’re overwhelmed, resentful, or distracted.

Whether you’ve realized a conflict, overbooked yourself, or aren’t interested in an obligation, it’s crucial to reverse your commitment gracefully. This way, you’ll keep a strong relationship and an intact reputation.

Saying No Doesn’t Mean You’re a Bad Person

You’re not selfish, unkind, or rude when you say no. These unhelpful beliefs are what make it challenging to say no. The most effective way to let go of assumptions is by determining where they’re coming from in the first place.

Saying NO doesn’t change who you’re

Have you ever asked yourself why saying no seemed so easy when you were a child and why it’s now hard? What happened?

Well, during childhood, we were trained to believe that saying no was inappropriate or impolite. If you said no to your parents, teacher, aunty, or any other adult, you were most likely considered a rude little kid, and you would’ve been told off for the “mistake.”

Now that we’re all mature adults, we’re capable of making independent decisions and distinguishing between right and wrong. So the word no shouldn’t be off limits, but something we choose based on our discretion.

Unfortunately, most of us still hold on to our age-old beliefs; hence we associate saying no with being unkind, ill-mannered, selfish, or dislikeable.

We’re worried that we’ll feel ashamed, guilty, or humiliated if we withdraw our commitment and end up rejected.

How to Gracefully Say “No” After Saying “Yes”

So it is okay to say yes, even after you’ve committed. But how do you do it gracefully so that it doesn’t affect your relationship with others or change their perspective of you?

Here’s how to go about uncommiting with professionalism and tact:

Consider The Cost

Before announcing your intention to back out, you must first ensure that withdrawing the commitment is the right thing to do. Consider the cost of foregoing it (opportunity cost).

For instance, if you accepted the role but now have second thoughts about handling the project, you should evaluate how important the entire project is to your crucial business goals.

If the initiative exposes you to other sections of the organization, grants you social capital, or equips you with new skills, it may be worth your time. But withdrawing is a better decision if the costs prevail over the benefits.

Change Your Perception

It’s okay to be paranoid that withdrawing your commitment will make you appear undecided and irresponsible. However, it’s essential to accept that following through on a promise you won’t keep is inappropriate and selfish.

Saying ‘Yes’ isn’t the end of the negotiation. You can always change your mind.

Agreeing to the role may make you feel like you’re being helpful and generous. But if you can’t keep your word, you won’t be doing any good to your performance, personal gratification, or relationships.

Moreover, backing out gracefully can display positive traits like transparent communication, time management, and strong prioritization.

Be Diplomatic but Straightforward

Be clear and assertive when delivering your withdrawal message. Don’t overexplain yourself. Rather, be thoughtful, direct, and, most importantly, honest.

For instance, after deciding to pull out of the task force, your message should be something like this:

“When I accepted to chair the taskforce last week, I was confident that I had sufficient bandwidth to deliver. But after closely evaluating my calendar, I noticed that this commitment could cause me to overextend myself and fail to address several other professional commitments. This means I’m not in a position to serve as the taskforce chair.”

Providing a brief justification for your decision can make your team better understand your withdrawal from the commitment. For instance, you can explain yourself this way:

“I understand we discussed my role as the task force chair last week, but I hadn’t envisioned the scope of the work when I agreed, and I didn’t expect to run this big project alongside my regular work responsibilities. Because of that, I withdraw.”

Preserve The Rapport 

Part of uncommiting gracefully involves apologizing and taking responsibility for any misunderstanding, mistake, or even overextending yourself. After all, your entire team depended on you and may have created plans around your involvement.

Changing should be graceful. Don’t severe your relationships

In the case of withdrawing from the task force, you could say, “I apologize for any inconveniences that result from my withdrawal. The fact that you considered me for this opportunity means a lot to me, and I’m rooting for the project’s success. I can’t wait to learn about your progress.”

You’ll show compassion and care by expressing gratitude and concluding in a positive tone.

Offer an Alternative 

Sometimes, you genuinely want to help but can’t do it. In such circumstances, the best thing to do is reschedule the task to a later date and propose a different timeline.

Something like, “After reexamining my schedule, I have to change my decision and decline the task at hand right now. However, consider me for similar projects in future. Would you reach out again next semester?”

You can also suggest an alternative, so you don’t leave your department head in a lurch.

For instance, you can find someone willing and able to commit or redirect them to a helpful resource like training material, a podcast, or a community to help them solve their problem.

Learn from It

Withdrawing a commitment isn’t fun or comfortable.

However, the experience can offer a valuable lesson and a motivation to beat people-pleasing propensities that could be your most significant hindrance to greater productivity and success.

So consider this a learning opportunity to boost your discernment on the things you accept or decline in the future. From now on, only take the exciting opportunities and those you have time to handle.

Your thoughtfulness doesn’t matter. You’ll occasionally change your mind or go back on a commitment you bound yourself to.

Don’t make it a habit, but always approach the deserved consideration and sensitivity to achieve the best possible outcome.