You did it: You were a good friend, or co-worker, or contact, and took time out of your day to read a resume, listen and advise over coffee, or provide notes on an upcoming project. In fact, you did such a good job that the other person has already followed up to ask if you can help again (and then again).
Can you blame him?
Maybe—and maybe not. On the one hand, you’d hope he might realize that you don’t have limitless time for people to “pick your brain.” But sometimes, he’ll keep coming back because you’re telling him to. That’s right: When you end that coffee meeting by saying, “Let’s set a date for next month” or conclude an email with, “Anytime you need help, please ask!” you’re literally the one suggesting he reach back out.
So, how can you get out of this habit, but still end your exchange on a friendly note? The trick is actually pretty simple, and it all comes down to phrasing. Instead of focusing on the future, comment on how happy you are to have been there—which signals the past tense nature of your guidance. This way you can still be gracious, but you’re not setting yourself up to be a constant source of free advice.
Here’s how it works, and what you can say based on the specific situation.
1. When You Don’t Have the Time
You love to pay it forward and help others out. But, you don’t have time to be someone’s mentor. You can pretty much commit to one cup of coffee or introduction or email exchange, and that’s all. (And by the way, that’s totally OK.)
However, you don’t want to send mixed signals. So, be sure to skip concluding lines like “Keep me posted how it goes,” which indicates that you’ll be there with next steps.
Instead, end with “I hope I was helpful.” This way, you’re still being friendly—and odds are slim that someone would follow with, “No, you actually weren’t, so please answer these five additional questions.”
On the off chance that you’re dealing with someone particularly persistent, you can move to being more blunt. In the next email, shift to, “Unfortunately, I don’t have time to give you an in-depth answer/provide additional guidance, but I wish you the best of luck!”
2. When You Don’t Have the Interest
Networking is not one-size-fits-all. If you went to a contact’s event, and felt uncomfortable the whole time, you have every right to decline future invites for similar get-togethers. Maybe you network better from your couch or one-on-one. Save your time and energy for what works for you!
Of course, in order to do that, you’ll need to bypass any phrases that suggest you can’t wait for the next shindig. That means “Let’s do it again!”; “See you soon!”; “Can’t wait!”; and “Looking forward to the next [event]” are all out.
Again, the trick here is to look backward. Go with: “I’m so glad I was able to make it.” Same goes for meeting up with someone again or providing feedback in the future, just tweak the end of “I’m so glad I was able to…” and sub-in “catch up with you,” or “provide helpful feedback.”
If there are future emails, stick with variations of the line above and add in some details about the visit that already occurred. It sounds like this, “Yes, it was great seeing you, too. I loved hearing about your new job.” And that’s all. Stay past tense, and don’t commit to being in touch in the future.
3. When You Don’t Feel Comfortable Saying “No”
In an article on the virtues of the word no, Muse Editor-in-Chief Adrian Granzella Larssen writes, “…I say yes until I find myself with a jam-packed calendar that not only stresses me out every time I look at it, it leaves no time for the activities that keep me sane or the big priorities that really matter to me. And I realize that in order to say yes to those things, I need to say no to others.”
If you identify with these two sentences, you need to get more comfortable ending one-time obligations without getting suckered into long-term commitments. To do this, remember that “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do” is perfectly nice—unless the reality is that you’ll dread hearing back, you have zero interest in doing anything else, and you’re just typing that line because you feel like you have to.
If you don’t have the bandwidth to stay in touch, but want to provide some kind of additional guidance, your best option is to send your contact elsewhere. For example, I often refer people who contact me with specific career questions to The Muse’s Coach Connect. Maybe you suggest your connection reach out to someone else you know (after asking of course), join a Facebook or LinkedIn group, read a book you found particularly enlightening on a given subject, or find some other outlet.
To make this a no-brainer for you—and save you from your wavering, defaulting-to-yes self—save a canned response with additional resources. This way, saying “no” really will be easier than saying yes.
If you know you’re likely to blurt out something that’ll commit you to future engagements, take extra time when ending a meeting or note. Don’t say what’s on the tip of your tongue. Consciously focus on using the lines above. In the end, it’ll save you—and the other person—headaches, because it’ll steer him or her toward someone who truly wants to provide continual help.
Photo of co-workers courtesy of PeopleImages/Getty Images.