A co-worker sends you an email asking if you’re available for a 2:30 PM meeting, and your first thought is: How am I going to get out of this?
You haven’t blocked out that time on your calendar, because technically you aren’t already committed to something else. However, you have a list of things planned for the afternoon, and no, a surprise meeting isn’t on it.
Before you automatically (though, begrudgingly) agree because you don’t think you have a choice, keep this is mind: While it’s true people will judge someone who declines every meeting or backs out after agreeing, that’s not what’s happening here. If your teammate’s asking you to join at the very last-minute—and you explain why you can’t in a thoughtful manner—odds are he or she will understand.
In other words, it’s possible to say no to a last-minute meeting and still look like a team player. Here’s how:
1. When You’re Too Busy
Yes, there are times when meetings are worthwhile and will help the team meet its goals. However, there are also situations where other projects take priority, and because we’ve all been there, most people get it.
Case in point: I learned that I could stall giving an in-depth reply to an email by sharing that I was under deadline—which was the truth! The people involved could relate and gave me a pass. (They even wished me good luck on my other project!)
The same approach applies when you’d like to decline a meeting on a day you’re swamped. Don’t make up any ol’ excuse. Be honest and say, “Unfortunately, I’m devoting every moment I have to [some task] due in two days. Please keep me posted if there’s any way I can be of help later this week.”
2. When You Don’t Think You Need to Be There
Like a courtesy CC, sometimes co-workers think that including you even when it’s not totally necessary is the nice thing to do—and they have no idea that it’s creating extra work on your end.
The best approach here is to both acknowledge their gesture and affirm you won’t be offended if the meeting goes on without you. It sounds like this: “Thanks so much for including me. From the agenda, it appears the meeting will be focused on product, so I don’t think I’ll be able to add anything to the discussion.”
Another benefit of this response is that, if you’re wrong and the organizer wants you to contribute, he’ll be able to correct you—and you’ll know in advance so you won’t be caught off guard.
3. When You’re Trying to Attend Less Meetings Overall
Successful people avoid extra meetings. Knowing this, you may’ve decided to try the to limit the number you attend each week.
But like any other change you’re trying to make, you have to clue in the people around you. For example, you have to tell your friends you’d rather meet for a walk than all-you-can-eat nachos and drinks because your new goal is to be healthier.
So, if you simply call meetings a time-suck and say no, your colleague may very well be put off. (Clearly, she thinks it’s important—that’s why she called it in the first place.)
Keep the focus on your experiment by saying something like, “I’m trying to set a limit of [either a time-frame spent or a specific number] of meetings per day to boost my productivity.”
If it’s a one-on-one meeting, follow up by asking if you could reschedule for a time that works better for you. And say that in the meantime, you’re happy to start the conversation over email (you’d be amazed how many issues can be resolved this way!). If a large group’s invited, ask if it’d be alright for you to send in thoughts in advance, or comment on notes afterward, whichever would be more helpful.
If you always agree to meeting requests, declining may feel a little nerve-wracking at first. So, think about what you’re achieving. Not only could it save you from a time-waster today, but in the future, it could encourage people to contact you with relevant invites only.