How To Say No With The Empathy Sandwich


“Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.”
John C. Maxwell 

One thousand, four hundred and forty minutes from now another day of your life will be over.

The question is not how much life you have left.

My question to you today is: how many of those 1440 minutes are going to matter?

And how many of them will you waste on things you do not want to do, and do not need to do?  

Your life matters.

Your time matters.  

And if your commitment “bucket” is overflowing to the point where you cannot do what matters to you – you need to empty it.  There are only two ways to do this.  You either have to:

  • Remove a current commitment from the bucket or
  • Decline new commitments as they come in

Breaking a commitment is very difficult – but nobody likes turning down commitments either when they know it will hurt other people’s feelings.

And don’t I know it – I used to be tremendously overcommitted.  

However, today I shall share with you my genuine, and very successful method of saying “No” without (hopefully!) souring a relationship: The Empathy Sandwich.

Why A Sandwich?

It occurred to me there had to be  a better way than bluntly saying no to people.  I was turning it over in my head when I remembered a strategy I used for delivering criticism: the criticism sandwich.

The basic premise of a criticism sandwich is that to make criticism easier to swallow, you “sandwich” it between two pieces of praise.

I figured if it’s good enough for criticism, maybe it’s good enough for turning down commitments as well.

Formula for the Empathy Sandwich

The empathy sandwich formula is simple enough:

Empathy Sandwich = Empathize + Decline + Empathize Again

The Empathy Sandwich In Action

Them:  “Sid I’m swamped this weekend, do you think you can handle [task that they want Sid to do] for me?”

Sid:  “
Empathize: I know what you mean. It’s so hard to make time isn’t it?  I remember you telling me last week how you’ve been working long nights at work and have been stretched thin.

DeclineI’m sorry, but I can’t handle  [that task] for you.

Empathize Again  I sure hope the pressure eases up on you soon, I know how hard you have been working these past few weeks and it seems like you always work harder than anyone else at your office. “

This example is exaggerated, but you get the idea.

The Formula Expanded

This format works especially well for emails – and to help you turn down your commitments that come in via email, here’s a response template, which you can make your own.

Legend: [ Brackets ] denote optional items, while the starred* items are required.

Hi _____,

Thanks for thinking of me for  ______. * (restate the exact issue for clarity)

Empathize* – I hear where you are coming from/have been there myself

Decline* – I’m sorry, but I can’t commit to ____. (state exact issue)

[Offer Others to Help] – Have you tried asking ___? Do you mind if I put you in contact with ___ who has more expertise?

Empathize Again* – I understand where you are coming from

[Can Help In Future] – I can’t help this time, but perhaps I’ll be able to be of assistance in the future.


– Sid

Go Use The Empathy Sandwich

Before you can do what really matters in your life, you’ve got to reduce the things that don’t really matter to you.

This is not about turning down the important thing in your life: it’s about coming up with a kind way to defend your time.  

When you use the empathy sandwich, make sure you mean it.  

Put myself in their shoes and consider that even though you have your own life to live, the person who is asking for help too has a lot going on.  

Empathize with them, show them that you appreciate them and where they are coming from – but be sure to defend your time when you know it’s not something you should really commit to.

Do What Matters In Your Life

The minutes, hours and days in your life are the most valuable asset you have – but you’ve got to make the most out of them.  You need to be the type of person who can set their mind to something and make it happen right now. If you are struggling, deserve more from your life, or are just passing through life unmotivated then you need to take action to change that. I will guide you with the techniques I have used in my own life to take action and get what I want. Take a look: The Action Solution: Advanced Training Techniques to Take Action In Your Life.  It is the result of decades of experience, and hundreds of hours of making dreams a reality for real people – and it might just be the turning point you need in your life… today.

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