Polite Ways to Decline a Meeting Invitation

22/3/2017 |

Here at Think Productive North America we feel very strongly that meetings should be as productive as possible, or not be held at all. So much so, that we offer Workshops to help teams to make their meetings “magic”!. Like you, we have experienced the tide of invitations that wash up in the email inbox, most of which you really don’t want or need to accept. Maybe it is because the meetings are extremely dull, or more probably, you’re up to your eyeballs in work, and just don’t have the time to attend. There are times you want to or just have to say “No” so here are some ways to do that without getting up the nose of the person who invited you. Let’s start with looking at the meeting itself.

Is It Important?

Firstly, as much as you would like to opt out, not all meetings can be declined. A lot of them are important, but you should identify the plethora of meetings that really don’t need your attendance.

So, deciding if the meeting is of value should be first priority, and then whether or not you should be the one to attend. Be mindful if you have a tendency to accept all the invites because they make you look and feel busy! For those who like to binge on low priority tasks, unproductive , but important sounding meetings are a great temptation.

There are certain questions that can gauge whether the meeting is valuable or not.

  • Is the meeting set up with an organised structure that has a clear purpose and agenda?
  • Is the topic of conversation 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?

Will Your Attendance Add Value?

If it’s decided that the meeting is indeed important, the next question must be “are you important to the meeting?”. Experience probably tells you that you have been invited to many meetings for the sole purpose of making you ‘aware’ of what’s going on in a certain area, or to update you on the progress of a project. A better alternative is to suggest that this is reported in a structured email in advance of the meeting, so that you can provide input if needed, or that you can’t attend but must be copied the minutes of the meeting.

The Ideal

Great meetings usually happen when a problem has occurred, or an issue has been identified, and a well-rounded group is brought together to generate ideas and produce a solution. If the meeting is about progress, production management, daily updates, routine issue management, or updating someone on the latest information, consider some alternatives to formal sit-downs such as standing- up!, or at least keep the meeting short and brief.


Saying No


Ways to Say No

If you want to make the grade as a true Productivity Ninja you are going to have to be ruthless and say no to more meetings – especially the dull ones. Saying No, as we know, isn’t the easiest thing to do, and it carries some risk, so here are some tips on how to politely decline your next meeting:

1) Define Your Own Schedule

It’s common, especially when you hold a leadership position, to have a schedule of regular meetings with teams and colleagues. Be strong about insisting that issues which crop up fit where possible into that regular schedule, rather than create new “one-off” meetings. By letting people in the office know you have a schedule outlined, they are less likely to look for a meeting outside that framework unless it really is an emergency. Be ruthless about booking calendar slots for personal productivity and “heads down activity” – your weekly review, strategy planning, performance reviews, even research and “catch-up” reading time. That way these slots will not show up in shared calendars as available for others, (such as the CEO’s Assistant!) allowing them to hijack your time.


Productivity Ninja Calendar


2) Just say No, but Kindly

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 usually understand that. For example, “I am sorry but I have a clash of commitments and can’t make the meeting. I am happy for you to go ahead in my absence, but would like to see the minutes as soon as they are available.”

3) Suggest a Different Option

Meetings take huge amounts of time out of people’s days, and if there is a way to get the same result more efficiently, then that should be considered, and you are entitled to suggest it. For example, you could ask for a shorter meeting, on the basis that the organizer summarizes the issues and questions in advance. One alternative could be to give your apologies, but make the offer of a 10-minute phone call in advance with the meeting chair to give your viewpoint it rather than attending the actual meeting. The best option though, may be to send someone to the meeting on your behalf. Make sure they are qualified and you’re confident they can add sufficient value – remember that 10 minutes briefing them will give a better result for everyone, and save you the other 50 minutes. It has the added bonus of providing good development opportunities for your team.

4)Find The Right Excuse

Be honest and about why you can’t attend – everyone recognizes conflicting pressures. But be assertive in defense of your work-life balance too, and remember those corporate commitments that have been made to employee well-being. It’s probably best to avoid telling others that you find their meetings dull! So while apologising that you’re not going to be able to make it, make sure you commit to two things – firstly to take time to look at the agenda and paperwork and pull out and comment on anything which is mission critical for your team so that the meeting will not take poor decisions in your absence, and secondly to reading the minutes. If you are really too busy to do even these two things (and that is entirely possible) then delegate the task to one of your team and ask them to pull out and summarize any key issues for you.


How do you decline a meeting invitation politely? Let us know in the comment box below or tweet us @thinkproductivecanada


By Richard Green and Miles Singleton
Richard is the Chief Financial Officer for Think Productive North America, and Miles is Think Productive UK’s Editorial Content Producer.

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