How to Decline a Meeting

Practical advice for declining meetings without hurting feelings

Everyone wants fewer meetings, but declining invites can be daunting.

You might worry how the organiser will react. Will they be angry? Will they see it as an arrogant move?

Fortunately, declining meetings is a skill that gets easier with practice. This article describes four common scenarios and provides example text for your response.

1: The weekly status meeting

Status meetings are an inefficient way to share small updates between a large crowd. The cost of these meetings is astronomical - often a dozen man-hours per time. Most attendees sit on mute and browse the Internet. “Sorry, I missed that question. Can you repeat it?”

If you are a peripheral member, I would send a decline message such as:

Hi Sam,

I’m trying to reclaim some calendar space to get more work completed. Happy to join on an ad-hoc basis if my input is useful.

Thanks, Duncan

It’s polite and to the point. You’ve explained why you’re declining – who can argue with getting more work done? – and left the door open for joining occasional meetings.

If you are a core member, escaping is harder. You could ask the organiser if this is the most efficient way to swap information. Daily check-ins on Slack or weekly summary emails, might be better.

If that fails, you can either decline outright or do a soft decline. An outright decline might look like this:

Hi Sam,

I’d love to join this status meeting, but I’ve got to prioritise my work on Project Flimflam. Shall I send you a summary of my inputs and you can invite me on an ad-hoc basis if needed?

Thanks, Duncan

While a soft decline would involve sending a “tentative” response with text such as:

Hi Sam,

I’ll join this meeting whenever I can, but please go on without me. I’ll be sure to send a summary of anything urgent that needs highlighting.

Thanks, Duncan

2: The meeting with no agenda

An agenda helps you decide whether a meeting is worth attending. If you get an invite without an agenda, you can’t make that judgement call.

Declining a meeting because it has no agenda is a bold move. If you’re a big cheese at your work, this might be OK for you. Most normal people need to be more sensitive.

I would usually reply to the invite as follows:

Hi Sam,

Can you please share an agenda for this meeting? I’ve got a busy week, so I’m wondering if this is a meeting I need to attend.

Thanks, Duncan

It’s polite, yet warns your time is limited. The organiser may rethink whether you need to attend.

If you don’t hear back from the organiser, then declining is completely acceptable.

3: The brainstorming meeting

Brainstorming meetings sound great in principle. You gather a brain trust and mull over a problem.

But this kicks the can down the road. It defers thinking until later, when you can enjoy a fun atmosphere with your colleagues. It’s pleasant to do it together, but it’s not efficient. 

As an alternative, each participant should brainstorm alone. If the meeting goes ahead at all, it should be a short meeting to review the options.

Here’s a possible response to such a meeting invite:

Hi Sam,

I worry some of the quieter voices get drowned out in group brainstorming meetings.

How about we draw up a list of ideas before the meeting and send them around? Then we can review each one in the meeting.

It also means we can have a 20-minute meeting instead of an hour. What do you think?

Thanks, Duncan

I guess that doesn’t count as a decline. But we’ve turned an unproductive meeting into a shorter more productive one.

4: The information broadcast meeting

Some meetings are broadcast-only sessions, such as an “all hands”. This also includes webinars, such as a project overview or a training session about a new partner.

The information in these meetings may be important, so I’m not suggesting you skip them out-of-hand. My favourite approach goes like this:

Hi Sam,

Unfortunately, I can’t make this time. Is it possible to record the session so I can view it later?

Thanks, Duncan

Easy. Now you can decide when the most convenient time to watch the content is, if you watch it at all.

Some conference tools allow you to adjust the recording playback. I find 1.5x to be a bearable amount of speedup, which reduces a 30-minute meeting to 20-minutes.

One final trick to make it easier

Declining meetings is straightforward when you realise how little time you have. Take control of your calendar and you’ll discover your highest priorities only get a small percentage of the week.

Can you justify two hours in a needless meeting if your vital project gets eight hours in the whole week?