It was one of those emails that makes you go, “Huh?”

The sender? A woman I had never met. Somehow, she had found her way to my website—to my contact page—and into my inbox.

This was her very first email to me. But she wasn’t writing to say “hello” and introduce herself.

Nope. She wanted to know if I would do her a huge favor:

Write her a personal letter of introduction to the editor of a major online news platform.

“I noticed that you’ve had a few articles published there,” she said. “I’d love an introduction to the editor.”

Her heart was in the right place—she wanted to write, get published, and bring her ideas to a larger platform.

But her request was pretty strange, because I didn’t know anything about her. I couldn’t vouch for her quality of work or her professionalism as a writer. We didn’t have any friends or colleagues in common. She was, for lack of a better term, a total stranger.

After chewing it over for a few moments, I decided that the answer was “no.”

I responded to her and said, “I’m not comfortable with that.”

It wasn’t too difficult to do—because we didn’t have any kind of relationship. But, saying “no” to a colleague, a close friend, or even an “internet friend?”

That can be much trickier.

The next time someone you know asks for a favor—an introduction, a donation, a job lead—that you’re not comfortable doing, here’s a script you can follow:

I’ve been thinking about your request, and I’ve decided that my answer is no—it doesn’t feel right to me.

But, I’d like to support you in a different way. Here’s something that might help…

Then, offer an alternative form of support. Something that’s easy for you to give. Something that feels appropriate and that doesn’t raise any ethical red flags.

For example:

  • If a writer is asking for a personal introduction to an editor that you know, you can give her a link to a blog post about how to woo editors and write stellar pitch letters.

  • If a friend is asking for a personal introduction to the CEO of your company, you can point him to an interview with your CEO (so he can do some research before writing a note) and, if it feels appropriate, pass along the email address of your CEO’s assistant.

  • If a colleague is asking you to “put in a good word” to your boss, you can offer some insider advice, instead. (“Here’s one thing I can tell you about my boss. She really admires people who [describe a quality she loves].”)

That’s the secret to a firm but gracious “no.”

Offer a small dose of support. Just not the exact form of support that they’re requesting.

By doing this, you’re positioning yourself as a thoughtful person with firm boundaries. A person who only says “yes” when it’s truly appropriate.

Not just because somebody asked.

Photo of writing in sand courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020