How to say “No”

If you are like many people, you find it difficult to say no, especially when you need to commit words to paper or the screen. Some people find the task so challenging that they avoid responding. In a survey I conducted of 686 people (many were readers of this newsletter), I found that 22 percent occasionally avoid responding; 3 percent frequently avoid responding rather than say no.

Part of the difficulty in writing a “no message” is that we forget we have just two goals: to communicate the no and to maintain the relationship. Our purpose is not to defend ourselves, educate the other person, or to take the message in another direction. Focusing only on saying no and supporting the relationship is the key to writing a successful message.
These are the three basic parts of a written no message:
  • A neutral or positive opening
  • A clearly stated or strongly implied no
  • A positive or professional close
Hi Darrin.
Thank you for inviting me to participate in the panel. I regret that I will not be able to do so.
I am wishing you and the program much success.
Subject: Monday’s Client Meeting
Hello, Yelena. I got your note asking me to move the client meeting to Tuesday. Unfortunately, I cannot do so. I wish I could accommodate you.
I hope you will be able to find a way to attend.


You may prefer to expand your no message with one or more of these parts:
  • An explanation for the no
  • An offer of an alternative
  • A brief apology
Subject: Re: Training Room Availability–Urgent
Greetings, Janice.
Regarding use of the training room this afternoon, the interns will be using it until 4. Sorry!
Christian Gray keeps the schedule for the boardroom and the first-floor conference room. You might check with him about last-minute availability.
Good luck!
Remember that your purpose is to say no and support the relationship–not to get into other topics. Notice how the following two examples avoid veering into heavy-handed advice.
When a coworker asks for your password to get a discount:
Hey Casey,
I am not comfortable sharing my password for the site.
To get the discount, you can register and get a password of your own. I believe the membership fee is just $15/year. It’s really worth it if you are going to make many purchases. 


When an employee asks for an advance on a paycheck:
Hi Debra. I am sorry I cannot approve an advance on your check. For many reasons I have a longstanding policy of not providing advances.
Dorothy Johnson in Employee Assistance might have some helpful ideas for you.
Be sure your no is either clearly stated or strongly implied. If it is not, your reader may be left wondering.
This example is too vague and may lead to follow-up messages:
Hi Cheri.
I received your message about taking paid time off on Friday. Cassy and Fleur are scheduled to take that day off.
This version makes the no message clear:
Hi Cheri.
I received your message about taking paid time off on Friday. Because Cassy and Fleur are scheduled to take that day off, I cannot approve your request. I am sorry it did not work out this time.
Notice that not one of the examples above shames the reader. The examples do not embarrass the reader for not knowing the obvious (for instance, how to find a conference room). They do not criticize the reader for asking for something inappropriate (for instance, a person’s password). In the examples, the writers also do not blame themselves in any way for saying no.
If you are hesitant to write no messages, remember that individuals are waiting for your response. When you send the no, you have satisfied their need for information. They will be able to move on–and so will you.
The book Business Writing With Heart includes sample no messages to customers and clients. It covers awkward situations such as responding to requests for discounts and for additional work despite unpaid invoices. Learn more about the book.
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This blog is Zoe's way to spread the joy of finding and learning interesting bits about English. Join her and learn something new every time.

2 responses to “How to say “No””

  1. worldjourneysdiscover says :

    Good advice. What about when you are really angry and need to vent at the reader though? 😉 😛

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