- Language level: upper intermediate and advanced / B2 and C1
- Skills: Vocabulary, speaking
- Time needed: 10-20 mins
- Focus: polite English, social English, business English, communication
Trust me for one minute. I want you to close your eyes and imagine this scenario:
You are on your lunch break and a colleague asks you if you want to go for a drink with everyone after work. You really don’t want to go, you are bit tired, a bit stressed, you’ve had a busy week and all you want to do is go home, put on your pjs, curl up on the sofa and binge watch Netflix. What do you say to that colleague?
If you are anything like me, you might even just say “Ok, sure!” and then you go in a bad mood for the rest of the afternoon because you just couldn’t say NO.
Saying 'no' can be a hard thing to do
We all lead busy and sometimes overwhelming lives and it is something we all NEED to get better at.
And if saying ‘no’ if difficult for most of us, I imagine that it is especially tough if you have to do it in English when English is not your first language. It can leave you feeling embarrassed and even frustrated.
- you are not sure of the right expressions and words to use
- you don’t want to hurt someone or let them down (to let someone down means to disappoint them)
- you feel like you are offending somebody and your English is rude or impolite
And here’s the problem. If you say “No, thanks.” or “Sorry, I can’t” although grammatically correct, it can appear rude or abrupt to native speakers. In many situations, it is better to be polite than too direct when speaking in English.
We can be polite by using specific words and expressions to soften the ‘no’. This type of English will help you keep a positive relationship with the person you’re talking to, even when you say no. You can keep it friendly, you won’t feel guilty and you won’t cause offence.
So let’s look at exactly how to do it.
1. Simple, honest, succinct
Let’s think about the scenario that I asked you to picture at the beginning of the lesson. A colleague asks you to join them for drinks after work. You can simply say:
“I’m sorry I can’t make it. I’ve got something else on tonight. Next time for sure.”
Or in a more professional context: imagine a similar situation, where a colleague is asking you to stay back and work on something together. You can use the same expression, but tweak it slightly:
“I’m sorry I can’t help you out. I’ve got something else planned tonight. I hope you get it all done.”
You are being clear about saying no, but you are being succinct, without going into any excuses or without giving too many details.
2. Don't say MAYBE when you mean NO!
Phrases to avoid:
- I’m not sure if I can.
- I need to check if I’m free.
- Let me get back to you.
All of these phrases are not actually saying ‘no’. They are saying maybe. And sometimes people will insist and put pressure on you to say yes. When you want to say no, make sure you are firm and clear.
- I’m afraid that I can’t, I have another commitment. I’m really sorry.
- I’d help you if I could, but I’m not able to. I have something else I have to do.
- I’d love to, but I’ve already got plans.
These phrases are clearly saying no, yet they are polite and they’re not going into any details.
3. Saying no when you feel guilty
Sometimes you need to say no but you feel really bad about doing it! You don’t want to let someone down, or you feel guilty about saying no. Here it’s best to go a bit more into detail and to share a reason.
“I’m really sorry, but I have to say no. I’ve got too much on my plate right now and I know if I say yes, I won’t be able to do my best work.”
Here I’m explaining that I’m over-committed at the moment and that if I said yes, I would end up letting that person down because I couldn’t give my full attention to the job. So it is a clear no, but it’s polite and sharing these details make it difficult for that person to keep putting pressure on you.
Other reasons you can give:
- I’ve got too much on my plate right now
- I’m over-committed right now
- I’m stretched thin right now
- I’ve spread myself too thin at the moment
- I’m head-down right now on a project, so I won’t be able to.
4. Keeping it professional
It can happen that you need to turn down work opportunities or refuse invitations or even say no to someone when they’ve asked for help.
These phrases are perfect to use in these kind of situations in a work environment:
- I can’t, but I know someone that might be a good fit for that. I’ll email you their information.
- I’m flattered you considered me, but unfortunately I’ll have to pass this time.
- You’re so kind to think of me, but I really can’t.
- Thanks for thinking of me, but I just can’t.
- Sounds great, but I can’t commit right now.
- I’m not taking on new things at the moment.
5. Keeping it friendly
These phrases are great in both work and social situations when you want to be more informal
- Sounds great, but I can’t manage that right now.
- I’m slammed. Sorry!
- No thank you, but it sounds lovely.
- I wish I were able to.
- I wish I could but …
Your turn to put all of this information into practice!
Choose one of the scenarios and share your response in the comments below for feedback
1. Think of a time when you said ‘yes’ to something and you really regretted it. What would you say differently to politely say ‘no’ in the same situation?
2. A friend calls you up asking you over for pizza but you really don’t feel like it. What do you say?
3. A colleague asks you to help out with a project but you already have way too much to do. What do you say?
4. A friend invites you to her daughter’s birthday party. You would rather eat your own arm than go to the party. What do you say?
To get the free printable reference guide for this topic ‘25 Ways to Say No‘, please send me an email and request guide and I’ll send it to you: email@example.com
If you love this topic and you need this kind of English for your work, we have an excellent online course where you will learn how to make your English more professional, polite and diplomatic.
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Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time.
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