The Art of Saying No to Birthday Parties, Volunteering and More

saying no

I’m the master at saying no. I like to say no. I’m good at saying no. (My children can confirm this.)

And I still find myself overloaded at times.

So how in the world are you YES people surviving? I don’t get you. But I want to help you.

I think that as humans, we feel bad when we can’t help others or need to decline a couple dinner invites in a row from the same friend. As a result, we tend to say yes without considering the balance our lives truly need.

And yeah … sometimes, as decent people, we should make some sacrifice to help others even when it stretches us thin. But I think it’s important to determine the difference and in so, establish general healthy “commitment-making skills” for our daily lives.

Here’s the thing, my dad once explained bandwidth like this “I’m not booked, but I’m not available.” Genius!!!! Just because Wednesday at 6pm is open, doesn’t mean it’s wise to fill it.

In a perfect scenario, when I get it right, these are the things I ask before making a commitment:

  • What’s in it for me? Yup, sure do. And I don’t feel bad about that at all.
  • Will it provide joy for my family? Sometimes, the nitty gritty still provides joy to us. Note, I said joy – not happiness. Happiness is fleeting but joy is eternal. When we grow as humans in our service, we develop joy. And sometimes, this is the answer to number one.
  • Will it kill me? Does this request mean a busy week or a busy 6 weeks? Maybe having one or two pretty busy weeks in a row isn’t the worst thing in the world when someone else is in a crisis.
  • What time does it start, what time does it end?
  • What do I have to bring?
  • Can I bring my kids?
  • How much does it cost? Does it fit with how I’ve been spending my money?
  • Is it on my way to somewhere I’m already going or am I okay building my schedule around it?
  • Does it involve traffic? What is parking like? #becauseAustin
  • If I do this, will I have bandwidth for that other thing I’ve said yes to?
  • If I do this, can I delegate aspects of it? Like hosting a party. Have people bring things. 
  • How many nights a week does that put me away from my family? In our house – our general weekly formula is one night out for me, one night out for him and one date night. We dedicate at least two nights, on average, for just our little family unit. And the rest can involve friends or other family. (I have a similar formula for work commitments: I aim to reserve a minimum of two days that are 100% free of meetings.)
  • For long term projects/committees – I want to know how many meetings are expected of me, how long are those meetings, what day are those meetings and are the agendas worth a meeting or can things be handled via email or a phone call? I also want to know more about the people involved. We’ve all been on those group projects in school where we pulled all the weight. That does not fly with me. Also, is leadership helpful and respectful/respected. 

Alright, so you’ve asked yourself these questions and you’ve established that a particular activity or involvement isn’t the right fit for you. Now what? How do you say no to that millionth birthday party invite? They’re invading your life.

In short: just do it. Just say it. Just.be.honest.

But if you need a little help, here are my classic responses for declining invitations, social fun and volunteer requests:

  • Birthday invites – (for the record, I really enjoy and value getting to know parents at b-day and parties but no, we can’t do them all)

“Ford is so bummed he can’t make it, but thank you so much for the invite. Happy Birthday, <insert friend’s name>. Have fun!”

Notice, I didn’t list my excuse. I didn’t go into why. I just said “Hi, no, thank you and HBD.” It’s not a sin to want a Saturday without plans.  

  • “Ack! I think John would kill me if I left him solo parenting one more night this week.”
  • “I’ve been dying to do that. Can’t this time around, what does next week look like for you?”
  • “I’d love to… mind if we host, though? That would make it more doable for us with the day we’ve had.” Make it work for you. 
  • For long term volunteer ops. “I’m flattered you would think of me for that. I would love to learn more….. <insert questions from above.>

Don’t want to do it? Follow with….

“That was really helpful, after thinking through your needs, I don’t think I would be the right fit for this.”

Cause here’s the thing…. Why say yes to something because you feel bad and then get into it, half heart it and frustrate everyone? The person asking wants someone that can give their all so don’t rob them of that opportunity. AKA: Do.not.feel.guilty. You’re doing them a favor by saying no.

With big projects, it can sometimes be impossible to know what it will take until diving in, but you likely have a good idea of what you can offer when going into it, so make that clear upfront. That makes it easier to raise your hand if it becomes too much. And even if you didn’t make it clear, raise your hand anyway. Ask for help. 

You can take these and apply/tweak to most circumstances. When the class mom lays on the pressure or the church nursery is turning kids away as they beg for volunteers, don’t let their ask overwhelm you or instill guilt, just offer what you can. I promise they would rather your help a couple times a year than never at all. 

On the flip side, if you’re not willing / able to help, you don’t get to be grumpy when the class party is canceled. Be cool and understand that we’re all in the same boat with busy lives and some things solely operate with volunteer power.

Either way, lay down the guilt momma. You’ve got humans to raise, caravan between sports and somehow feed and bathe in the midst of the chaos. Don’t feel bad! Are you crying every time someone declines your invite? No! And neither are the rest of us when you say no.

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