How to Politely (but Firmly) Say No to a Meeting

It's important to be protective of your time.

Daniel B. Kline
Daniel B. Kline
Mar 2, 2019 at 7:18AM
Investment Planning

Most people who work in an office have pulled up their schedule to see an entire day filled with meetings. Sometimes those meetings are necessary, valuable, and/or unavoidable. In other cases, your willingness to be agreeable and inability to be protective of your time causes you to waste hours in meetings you don't really need to have.

That could be very important because, as my colleague Maurie Backman reported, middle managers spend about 35% of their time in meetings, while high-level managers spend a whopping 50% of their time holed up in conference rooms, according to career site The Muse. That's a lot of time spent in meetings that you should at least consider as not time well spent.

Of course, there are some meetings you have to agree to. When your boss asks for a one-on-one to go over your performance, well, you can't turn that down. If, however, your boss wants you to attend a slew of meetings that you don't see as the best use of your time, there are ways to push back.

Two people are talking at a conference table.

There are some meetings you can't turn down, but many are negotiable. Image source: Getty Images.

But it's my boss asking

If you're lucky enough to have the type of boss who values your input, it makes sense to push back when you think a meeting is not a great use of your time. Don't just say that; explain what you will be doing instead of attending and how you will learn about whatever happened in the meeting.

"I'd be happy to go, but had planned on finishing the proposal for the new account we're pitching at that time, and I can get a rundown of the meeting from John after," makes your case and shows that you're using your time well.

It's possible your boss will still want you to go. If that happens, at least he or she will understand the exchange being made and what's being given up for you to attend the meeting.

A meeting or a time suck?

As a work-from-home writer, I have a limited number of meetings. When I travel to a trade show, however, my inbox fills up with meeting requests. Some can be easily dismissed, as the companies asking may literally have nothing to do with what I cover. In most cases, however, it's more of a grey area. The company may not be one of the large public companies I cover, but it may support that type of company.

I'm headed to a trade show, ShopTalk, in Las Vegas in early March, and I could literally schedule my three days there from 7 a.m. through evening every single day. The reality is that meetings are not all I want to get out of the show (there are some top-tier retail players delivering keynotes), and I won't have time to write up more than a handful of stories from any meetings I take.

Because of that, I have been selective and forceful in saying no. In cases where the pitch makes sense but I simply have better offers, I decline the meeting request on the basis of my schedule. When an offer is in my wheelhouse and I think I can learn from it and get a story, I offer a few available slots, and if those don't work, agree to consider a phone meeting after the show.

Most of the time, however, I just say no. I'm polite, but I try to close the door when the meeting would make the public relations person asking look good but not result in any coverage or meaningful knowledge gained. It's a harsh approach -- and I wish I had time to take at least twice as many meetings as I will have -- but it's a better use of my time to attend a speech by a major retail CEO than it is to talk to most of the people who want meetings.


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Take control

Meetings can be valuable, but if you have too many of them -- even good ones -- you can run out of time to execute any discussed ideas. Be protective of your time and try to take only the meetings that come with the greatest chance of success. Say no when you can and remember that there are other ways to communicate -- emails, calls, Slack, etc. -- that can replace meeting in person at a much lower time cost.