Polite ways to decline a meeting invitation
There it is in your inbox: an invitation to a meeting you really don’t want to attend. Maybe because it’s shoe-horned into one of the few remaining white spaces on your calendar. Or it’s for a time that’s already booked, and now you’re left to decide whom to turn down. Whatever the reason, sometimes you need to decline a meeting invite.
Your first challenge is deciding which meetings to decline. A little discipline goes a long way here. Establish a set of criteria for participation and stick with it.
Start by assessing the value of the meeting. Is the meeting about something important, timely, and worthwhile? Is it set up for success by having a clear purpose and agenda? Is there background information available to inform participants in advance? Are the appropriate people invited so that meaningful progress can be made?
If the value of the meeting isn’t clear from the invitation, reply with a few open-ended questions before making your decision:
• “Could you please provide some additional information about the agenda?”
• “What stage of decision making are we at on this topic?”
• “How should I prepare for the discussion?”
If it’s clear that the meeting is worthwhile, your next question is whether or not you’re the right person to attend. Are the issues within the purview of your role? Do you have the expertise to contribute to the conversation? Are you underqualified or overqualified for the level of decisions on the table? If you’re questioning why you were invited, reach out to the meeting organizer before responding:
• “What are you looking for me to contribute at this meeting?”
• “Who else will be there from my department?”
• “Who will I be representing?”
Finally, if you believe the meeting will be valuable and that you would make a contribution to the discussions, you need to decide whether or not the meeting is a priority for you right now. How central is the meeting topic to your role? Where does the issue fit relative to your other immediate demands? How unique is your contribution, and could your seat be better filled by someone else?
If you can’t say yes to any of the three criteria above, then it’s appropriate to decline the meeting, but tread carefully. You want to leave your coworker feeling that you’re a good team player and a positive contributor, even if you don’t attend her meeting. Consider a few options:
Can I stop the meeting altogether?
If the meeting failed criteria 1 because you don’t believe it’s set up for success, take a moment to talk with the organizer about your concerns. It’s possible the person will dismiss your comments, but it’s possible that you trigger one of two positive outcomes: either the meeting gets better positioned for success or it gets cancelled.
Try one of the following approaches:
“This is an interesting topic. Based on our current year priorities, I’m not sure we’re ready for a productive conversation yet. Would it be possible to push this meeting back and let the working group make a little more progress before we meet?”
“I’m looking forward to making some decisions on this issue. From the meeting invite, it doesn’t look like Production is involved. I would like to wait until someone from Production is willing to join. Otherwise, we won’t be able to make any decisions.”
“Based on the information in the invitation, it looks like this meeting is for informational purposes. Would it be possible to get a summary sent out rather than convening a meeting?”
Can I recommend someone else?
If the meeting is important, but it failed criteria 2 because you’re not the right person for the job, try recommending someone else. Be sure to invest some effort in finding the right person so you don’t appear to be shirking the responsibility.
Try floating these options:
“I’m flattered that you are interested in my input. I don’t believe I’m the best qualified on this topic. I did a little digging and it looks like Pat would have the necessary context. Would you be comfortable inviting Pat rather than me?”
“Given that this is a decision-making meeting, I think it’s more appropriate to have my manager represent our team.”
“Thanks for the invite to this meeting. I don’t think I’m required at this point. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to send Jose as my delegate.”
Can I contribute in advance?
If the meeting failed criterion 3 (you determined that it was an important topic on which you could add unique value, but attending the meeting doesn’t fit with your schedule or priorities), you have the opportunity to add value in advance. Take a few minutes to pull together some notes and brief the chair or a suitable participant. That will be much more efficient than attending the entire meeting.
You can respond to the organizer by saying:
“This is going to be an important discussion. I’m not able to attend, but I will find some time to share my thoughts so you can include them in the discussion.”
“I’m sorry that I can’t attend the meeting. If I prepare you in advance, could I ask that you represent my ideas at the meeting?”
Can I attend for part of the meeting?
If one or more agenda items did meet all three of your criteria, whereas others didn’t, you might have the option of attending for part of the meeting.
You can respond with one of the following:
“Thanks for the invite. I think it’s really important for me to be part of the discussion on rebranding. Given a few other priorities at the moment, I’m going to excuse myself once that item is complete.”
“Would it be possible to cover the rebranding discussion as the first agenda item? I can’t stay for the entire meeting but I’d really like to contribute on that one.”
Regardless of which option you choose, you’re trying to do three things. First, model deliberateness about the use of time. Second, share your rationale so that the meeting organizer has some context for why you’re not participating. Third, make an effort to meet the organizer’s needs, even if it’s not in the way they had originally envisioned.
It might be a bit of a culture shock at first, but all the overwhelmed people with 35 hours a week of meetings will quickly admire your discipline. Just remember, you need to afford the same courtesy to the people who decline the invites you send.
This article was originally published at Harvard Business Review and is republished here with permission.