Polite Ways to Decline a Meeting Invitation

October 27th 2017

by Tracy Parks, Think Productive USA

America meets a lot; an estimated 11 million meetings are held in the United States each day. Traditional meetings mean losing out on time that the attendees could be using to do something else, so typically, they’re reserved for important subjects…or at least they’re supposed to be. But, we live in the age of meetings to plan meetings, or meetings about meetings that already happened.

• 63% of meetings are conducted without a pre-planned agenda.
• 73% of meeting attendees admit to doing unrelated work during meetings.
• The average cost of a meeting? $658. That’s for an internal meeting, when everyone is there. If you need to leave the office by car, the price nearly doubles. Need to leave the office by plane? You’re looking at an exponential increase.

It’s clear there is room for improvement to make meetings matter and ideally hold fewer, more effective meetings.
Below are a few tips to consider before you simply respond “yes” to each meeting request that lands in your inbox and a few polite ways to decline a meeting request.

Gauge Importance
Not all meetings can be declined; but its statistically probable there are meetings which don’t need your attendance. Deciding if the meeting itself is of value and worth attending should be your priority. Explore these questions before you accept that latest meeting invite:

• Is the meeting set up in an organized structure with a clear purpose and agenda?
• Is the topic important and timely?
• If progress is going to be made, are the right people going to be in the room?
• Is there contextual information available to attendees in advance?
• What will you be saying “no” to if you attend the meeting?

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Can you add value?
If a meeting request lacks a clear objective and agenda at the time of the request; push back. How can you know if your needed if it isn’t clear what the meeting is really purposed for? A best practice that works well even if your responding to the “boss” is something like this: I’m looking at my schedule and want to assure I can add value and be fully prepared for this meeting, can you forward the objective and agenda my way?”

Ways to say “No”:
After you stop and consider if you really need to attend and after you conclude you do not, well; saying “no”, (as we know) isn’t the easiest job to do, so here are some tips on how to politely decline your next meeting:
1) Be clear on your schedule
It’s common, especially when you hold a leadership position, to have a schedule of meetings outlined in advance. For example, sales meetings on a Monday, content meetings on a Tuesday, etc. By letting staff and others know you have a schedule outlined, they are less likely to ask outside of those times unless it is a pressing matter. This way you can always deflect meetings by replying
“Yes, I’m happy to discuss this with you. Can it wait and be included in the meeting we have scheduled on Thursday?”
2) Just (kindly) say “no”:
There’s nothing wrong with saying no. More people should be saying it. It shows that your time is important and your co-workers will understand that. This way of rejecting a meeting is more direct, best used for meetings which do not require you or are not of relevance. This can be combined with the other methods however. For example, “I’m unable to make that meeting because of existing commitments. I am interested in knowing how this project is progressing; can you email me the report afterwards as well as any questions you may have?”
3) Suggest a different option:
Meetings can be great to plan, brainstorm, build a team or tackle a challenge, but if it’s a simple update you may be able to get up to speed without holding a meeting. If there is a way to get the same result through a more efficient method; propose that option:
• Could they email you specific questions they need answered for the meeting?
• Can the meeting be shorter (statistically a 60-minute meeting if well designed can be done in 40 minutes; a 30-minute meeting done in 20 minutes).
• Would a 10-minute phone (or Skype) suffice?
• Is it possible to send someone to the meeting on your behalf?

Tracy Parks is the Director and Master Productivity Ninja at Think Productive USA, a productivity and time management training company serving knowledge workers worldwide.