I’d like you to take a second and think about this: how many times a day do people ask you to do something (at work, at home, at your kid’s school….)??. I’ll give you some examples:

  1. One of your colleagues has just asked you to go out for drinks on Friday night after work. You’re already exhausted and want nothing more than to go home and have an early night.
  2. You are about to go on your lunch break when a colleague asks if you can help him fix a technical problem on his computer before you take your break.
  3. An old friend has just started his own business and wants you to design his website (preferably free of charge). You really don’t need any extra work after 5 pm.

Sound familiar? This happens more than once a day, right? Now, how many times would you like to answer their questions with a big fat NO?? Almost every time, correct?

Then why is it that we struggle so much with this simple two-letter word? We get roped into doing things for which we don’t have the time and/or energy (or that we simply don’t WANT to do), all because of our fear of the word NO. Telling someone that, actually, you do not want to join the company’s netball team / become president of the PTA committee / organize this year’s Christmas party, feels like you’re letting them down…and they’ll never forgive you for it. Saying NO makes us feel selfish and rude,

The English language doesn’t help in this regard: English is all about being indirect, because heaven forbid we might offend someone. And what word feels more direct and offensive than NO?

So, let’s look at ways to get you out of all these awkward situations and find polite ways to turn someone down, without making you or them feel bad.

Make a statement of regret

When you do turn someone down, always let them know how deeply sorry you are (even if you’re not). Use simply phrases like:

  1. I’m sorry, but…
  2. I’d really like to, but…
  3. I wish I could, but…

Give an explanation

People are less likely to be offended or hurt if you give them a good reason for why you can’t do something.

  1. I’m really busy with other projects right now.
  2. We out of town that weekend
  3. I have to help out at home in the evenings.
  4. I don’t think I’m the best person to help you with that.

Offer an alternative

In order not to seem rude or selfish, you might want to offer an alternative solution to the problem, to show that you are willing to help.

  1. Can I help you with that tomorrow? I’ll have more time then!
  2. Maybe ask John, he knows more about this stuff!
  3. I can do it once a month instead of once a week?

To finish off, here are a few more phrases to (politely) say no to different things:

Polite ways to say no to a request
I’d love to help you, but right now I’m really busy with…
I wish I could, but right now I need to focus on…
Normally I’d be able to, but right now I have to….

Polite ways to say no to invitations to social events
That sounds great, but….
I’m sorry I can’t that night. I have to….
I really appreciate the invite, but…

Polite ways to say no to an offer
I appreciate the offer, but…
That would be great, but I’m already working on…
Thank you for the offer, but my schedule is full at the moment.

We hope this helps you feel more confident and less awkward next time you have to say the dreaded NO to a colleague, friend or other conversation partner. As always, English to Go is here to help if you need more English coaching on any topic. We’re here to help you reach your professional or personal goals!