Successful professionals get them all the time: plaintive emails from long-ago colleagues, or college friends — or even those friends’ adult children — seeking “an hour of your time” or a chance to “pick your brain” or an offer to “buy you a cup of coffee.”
Early in your career, it can be flattering that someone respects your opinion and your network enough to want to meet you. But that quickly grows old. When you start to receive dozens of requests per week — almost always for 30-60 minutes of private consultation — you would dramatically handicap your productivity if you tried to do them all.
Judging which requests to honor can be difficult, however. Of course you’d say yes if the person were a close friend. Similarly, it’s easy to dismiss the requests if you don’t know the person well, or at all. But there’s a large gray zone of casual contacts where you aren’t excited to accept, but would also feel bad declining. For those instances, here are five ways to say no, or at least a modified no, to a networking request.
Ask them for more information. Sometimes people will contact you because another person thought it would be a good idea — but they aren’t really sure why. This leads to rambling, aimless conversations that you should do everything possible to avoid. Unless they can articulate why they want to meet with you — specifically — then it’s best to say no. A good way to weed out the confused is to write back to their request by saying, “I’d love to see if I can be helpful. Can you tell me a bit more about what you’d like to discuss, and how I can be useful to you, in particular?” Even this extra step will derail a significant portion of requesters, who won’t write back at all. If they do, you can route them to the next step — referring them to other resources.
Share resources. Once you have a handle on what information the other person is interested in, you can provide more targeted help. Everyone will start out asking for a private call or meeting, but if you don’t know them well, they need to earn that right — and they can do so by showing that they’ve already consumed all the publicly available resources. If you’ve created content on that topic, such as blog posts, videos, books, or podcasts, you can send them a link to that material and say, “Your upcoming book sounds terrific. I’ve written quite a bit on the subject of how to launch your book successfully, and I think these articles will answer most of your questions. If you have further questions after checking them out, please feel free to write me back and I’m glad to help.” If they do write back with a targeted, specific question, great — it shows that they’re highly motivated and deserving of help. But the truth is, you’ll lose another 80% of inquirers after this step.
Invite them to a group gathering. If you’d genuinely like to meet the person but don’t have time for a one-on-one coffee, you could invite them to a group gathering. This is incredibly efficient, because you’re connecting with multiple people at one time (I regularly organize dinner gatherings of up to 10 people), and they get the benefit of making additional new connections, as well. If you’re not interested in organizing an event, you can accomplish the same thing by inviting people to join you at events you’re already planning to attend, such as a networking breakfast or industry mixer.
Defer your acceptance. Another way to protect your time is to defer the invitations you accept. For instance, I’ve received more than 50 requests for podcast interviews this year, but I’ve spent much of that time focused on writing my next book and launching an online course. I would write back and agree to appear on the podcast, but ask if we could delay it by several months; almost always, the host said yes. If you agree, you do have to honor your word and eventually do it. But corralling invitations into a time period where you have more flexibility can make the experience more enjoyable and beneficial for you.
Just say no. Sometimes, a request isn’t worth saying even a modified “no” to. You simply have to decline. That may be because you have minimal connections to the person, or they’ve proven themselves to be somewhat clueless or entitled with their request, or perhaps you’re simply too overwhelmed to say yes to anything. In that case, it’s best to respond quickly but firmly. “Thanks so much for your kind invitation to meet up,” you could say. “Unfortunately my schedule makes that impossible, so I’ll need to decline. I’m wishing you the best with your project.” They might be mad that you said no, but they won’t be able to fault you for your promptness or your manners in getting back to them.
The Internet era has made people far more accessible to one another — which is generally positive. But it’s also emboldened our most tangential LinkedIn connections to reach out and ask for phone calls and in-person meetings that could take up all of your available time, if you let them. Staying productive and effective these days means knowing when — and how — to say a gracious “no” to the myriad requests that come our way, so that we can focus on our own priorities.
A version of this was first posted on HBR.org