How to Say No to “Grabbing Coffee”

As people begin to re-emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re all bound to get more networking invitations and requests for our time. We all face a unique opportunity to reset how we invest our time. In our ultra-connected lives, if we don’t clear space for what is most essential, our aspirations will take a backseat to our inboxes. So rather than begrudgingly agreeing to meet someone or endlessly postponing social plans that you’re less than enthusiastic about, know that there are alternatives. It’s all about thinking through the values you want to bring to your work life.

After taking a year away from the ways you once socialized, you may be realizing you’re more of an introvert than you previously thought, or that you prefer spending time with your family, on your hobbies, or doing deep work, rather than participating in work-related social commitments. That’s OK. During this time of transition following the Covid-19 pandemic, as more of us get vaccinated and we begin to venture out, we all face a unique opportunity to reset how we invest our time.

So rather than begrudgingly agreeing to meet someone or endlessly postponing social plans that you’re less than enthusiastic about, know that there are alternatives.

Of course, in the moment, saying yes to an invite or opting for a softer no, with a response like, “So busy! Let’s be in touch in a few weeks!” may feel easier than flat-out declining. Yet as your guilt mounts and leads to a reluctant meeting, you may wish you had an effective way to decline warmly and transparently. Those ways do exist. When we’re interacting, we all face various and at times overlapping priorities: what we actually want — in this case, to pass on an invite; how we want to feel about ourselves; and how we want the person we’re engaging with to feel about us. The good news is that it’s possible to maintain your self-respect and your relationships even if you turn down an invitation. Here’s how.

Pinpoint your values before requests arrive in your inbox.

Instead of automatically scheduling when you get an invite, consider what feels essential this quarter — and beyond. If you’re dreading returning to the office, take some time to reflect on how you want to show up in your life as you re-enter. Ask yourself a few key questions to home in on what will feel most meaningful to you. What do you miss most from the time before Covid-19? What would you like to leave behind as you establish your new routine? Having a sense of autonomy and purpose not only helps you feel empowered but also improves your ability to manage your emotions.

Map out a budget — for your life.

Think beyond what has happened in the past year and a half and get to the crux of what you want by asking yourself this: If you had one year left to live (which may not sound so improbable, given everything we’ve been through and how many lives were cut short), how would you spend your time? Working more or less? If the answer is the latter, think about the various facets of your life, whether they pertain to your health, your family, your relationships, your career, your community, your spirituality, or your contributions to the world at large. Then set specific intentions and goals within each category. As with any budget, the more precise you are, the likelier you are to meet your aims.

Next, think about the values you want to bring to your work life. Then ask yourself how much time you can realistically allocate to a work-related rendezvous before you shortchange other domains that matter to you. Don’t just consider the time involved; also think about the sort of socializing that feels most meaningful or productive for you. For example, you may reflect on the fact that you most want to help people who have lost their jobs or support those with less access to mentorship, which may mean cutting back on unspecific catch-up lunches with acquaintances (there are other ways to nourish your collegial relationships, after all, such as sending a thoughtful email). You may realize that devoting more than one night a week to a work dinner deprives you of being able to spend time with a loved one or on a passion project. If you are undecided, sketch out a decision tree to help guide you before you’re confronted with invites. The goal isn’t to be a misanthrope; it’s to clear the way for what is most meaningful to you. In our ultra-connected lives, if we don’t clear space for what is most essential, our aspirations will take a back seat to our in-boxes.

Ask yourself whether social anxiety is keeping you from engaging.

As you’re planning, ask yourself if your social worries are getting in the way of moving in the direction you want to go. It’s understandable to feel socially awkward, especially if you’ve been struggling emotionally and assume that others have been thriving. If you find that you’re anxious after you make plans and then again when you’re with others, or if you’re acutely self-conscious and replay perceived faux pas following a get-together, you can ease your stress by working on your social worries. Many people who experience social anxiety disorder find relief with cognitive behavioral therapy.

If you say yes, then truly be there.

Keep in mind that charisma hinges on being present, so make a point of truly listening to the person you’re with rather than imagining what that person thinks about you — which can be notably distorted if you’re socially anxious. If you’re feeling frazzled, practice some self-compassion and appreciate that coming across as overly polished can prove intimidating, while — in what’s known as the Pratfall Effect — blunders can be endearing.

If you’re not socially anxious but simply find socializing exhausting and prefer to focus on working versus networking, it can still be helpful to let your values — rather than your comfort zone — drive your behavior. In a study on happiness, the psychologists Seth Margolis and Sonja Lyubomirksy encouraged participants to act reserved for one week, then act outgoing for another week. After acting extroverted, regardless of whether or not they truly were extroverts, participants experienced heightened positive emotions and feelings of connectedness.

Make it more effortless.

Once you’re clear on your values and what’s driving you emotionally, adopt this motto from dialectical behavior therapy: “avoid avoiding.” That means skipping an insincere “Sure,” not kicking proposed plans down the line when you don’t really intend to make them, and honestly sharing your limits. But be kind: It often takes courage for someone to reach out to you, and your contacts may be feeling particularly vulnerable now.

Instead of staring at a blank window analyzing for longer than responding would take, create a thoughtful template email that you can tweak depending on the nuances of the situation. In crafting your message, be careful not to make it only about you being busy. Honor the other person by making them feel seen and reflect on what makes sense given your relationship. Consider taking the following actions in your message: warmly validating, honestly expressing preferences, and offering something pleasant if you can’t contribute personally — whether that’s a nice alternative like an email introduction, a better time to chat, or simple well-wishes. Here’s what that might look like:

“It is so nice to hear from you, and I appreciate you thinking of me during what must be a stressful time. I hope you’re doing well in this transition. I’m increasingly realizing that I have too much pulling at me, so I’m taking a break from in-person networking. That said, I’d still like to keep in touch and be helpful, so can we set up a call instead?” If you don’t want to chat in real time, you can tailor some version of: “I hope you’re well! I’m stretched now and cutting back on networking meetings. I hope you understand, and I’m rooting for you during your round of fundraising.” If you have the bandwidth to offer more, you could add, “Feel free to send me a bit more information on what you’re hoping to discuss, and if I can help, I’ll let you know.”

If you receive a request that seems unreasonable given your relationship to the seeker, you can let it go, the same way you might ignore an offer from someone wanting to buy your house when it isn’t listed for sale.

Strategize better solutions.

As you think through what matters and how to respond clearly, brainstorm ways to connect that require less energy. For instance, if you prefer phone calls, you might try batching your catch-ups in a Friday afternoon session every two weeks. It’s remarkable how much enthusiasm and genuine warmth you can convey, even by phone, when you skip multitasking and stretch beyond perfunctory banter to give someone your full attention. Finally, keep in mind that this isn’t about being self-centered but about navigating requests compassionately. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh so thoughtfully wrote in Gift from the Sea, “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.” So as we all move off of Zoom and into IRL encounters, let’s zoom in on what matters — your values, and communicating them with kindness and sincerity.

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