"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
September 27, 2012
When Can I Say No to a Favor?
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


I am married, but I have no children. I am healthy, have a car, and work flexible hours from home. I keep very busy, but I must seem bored or something because even when I’m new in a ward, people always ask me to do favors for them — watch their kids, drive them to the airport, teach their Primary class because they want a break, chaperone a youth dance because they don’t feel like it.

Technically, I have time. I can always work later. But sometimes I don’t want to help. I’d rather go to the gym than watch someone’s toddler for two hours so she can run errands. I know I’m supposed to offer service to others, but do I have to rearrange my life every time someone asks? When is it okay to say “no” when someone asks you for a favor?


Favors are wonderful things. They make life easier and more pleasant for people who use them correctly.

There are two keys to a successful favor-trading relationship.

First, reciprocity. Favors are reciprocal: you trade them. When you call someone for a favor, you are authorizing that person to call you for a similar favor in the future. In a successful favor-trading relationship, neither person keeps score, but neither person feels like the other is a taker. Both parties are satisfied with the unofficial tally.

(As an aside, one way to keep would-be friends at bay is to never ask them for a favor, even if they owe you big time. By not asking them for help when you need it, you communicate to them that your relationship is not that close.)

Second, proportion. Favors should be kept within the scope of the relationship. You ask small favors of people you do not know well. You ask big favors of people you know very well — well enough to know in advance if (1) they will object to your asking and (2) they would feel comfortable asking you for a similarly inconvenient favor in the future. If the answer to either of those questions is “no,” you should not ask.

So neighbors might pick up the mail or feed a cat while someone is out of town. Friends might trade babysitting or drive each other to a nearby airport. Close friends might help each other move.

Another part of proportion is frequency. You should not ask for favors too often. If you are in need of constant assistance, you need to re-organize your life, not enlist your friends to pick up your slack.

When abused, favors fray relationships. So don’t ask people to do things for you that you can do for yourself. Don’t keep asking someone for favors if he never asks you for a favor in return. Don’t ask big favors of people you don’t know very well. Always express gratitude.

In your case, people you have only just met are asking you for big favors. The proportion is all wrong, and that is why you feel uncomfortable. If the same requests came from close friends, I bet you’d be much more willing to help.

The good news for you is that you are under no obligation to say yes every time someone asks you for a favor.

When can you say no?

First, if you can’t. “Can’t” is very broad. You can’t drive someone to the airport if you will be out of town, or tend children if you have a hair appointment, or teach the Beehives to crochet if you don’t know how. “Can’t” includes any time you have allotted for work or other activities — even if those activities could be rearranged.

Second, if you don’t owe that person a favor. This is where your unofficially tally comes into play. If you and this person do trade favors, but you have been on the giving end enough to feel weary at being asked again, you can say no.

Third, if the favor exceeds the scope of your relationship. These are the requests that leave you thinking, “I can’t believe she asked me to do that. We’re not that close!”

For example, if someone teaches your Primary class while you are out of town, you should help her set up for the Relief Society meeting she has organized. But you can safely decline to keep her children for three days while she and her husband go on vacation.

Fourth, you can say no if you and this person do not do regular favors for each other and you do not want to enter into a favor-trading relationship. Similarly, you can pull back from a favor relationship that has become too burdensome by squaring up the unofficial tally and then declining to do or ask for future favors. But proceed with caution: a sudden withdrawal will damage your friendship with the person, who will justifiably wonder why your favor relationship has ended.

To politely refuse to do a favor, just say, “I’m sorry. I can’t.” Try to look sorry.

Never give a reason for your refusal. This protects you from (1) the person attempting to find a workaround, (2) fibbing, (3) communicating to the person what other activity you think is more important than helping him.

It is also wise to avoid broadcasting to the world what you were doing instead of the favor. In other words, if you declined to watch someone’s child for the afternoon, don’t post on Facebook that you slept from noon to five. Come to think of it, even if you work nights, never post on Facebook that you slept from noon to five.

But the other question here is should you do a favor that you could do, but don't really want to do?

Unless the person asking is a perpetual taker, err on the side of generosity. A little inconvenience never hurt anyone.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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