Top 7 ways to politely say “No”

7) Cushion your response in a compliment

Compliments work well to cushion the impact of having to say no. Maralee McKee, an etiquette specialist has a system that works well for her.  She does the following, a) Start with a compliment if one fits the situation b) Give your answer c) Say thank you d) Encourage the person e) Change the subject or excuse yourself. An example could be when a co-worker wants you to do something. You could say, “Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately,  I’m not able to now because the third quarter projection reports need my full attention and will for the next four or five days. Thanks though, and I know you’ll get everything done in good order. You always do. I think we’re all feeling under pressure with the deadlines so close.”  Offering your efforts at a future time that is more convenient for you may also help provide a buffer.



6) Offer another resource

Sometimes, offering another option can be a great alternative. For example, you could say “Thanks for thinking of me.  Unfortunately, I’m not available during that time period.  However, my colleague John Doe comes highly recommended.  I’ve sent lots of folks his way and they’ve all loved working with him.”  Of course, only give a reference you trust.  Your reference would also likely be grateful for your recommendation.


5) Give yourself some time

Know that with most requests, you don’t have to answer right away. A polite “Let me think about it” or “Let me check my calendar and get back to you” response can go a long way. If you have an option, give yourself sometime to think about how to say no.  For example, if your friend asks if you will be coming to town to visit her for New Year’s you may respond “I’m not sure yet. We haven’t thought that far.  I’ll let you know closer to the date when my work schedule has been finalized.”  Avoid saying yes first and then changing your mind later. This might make you look less credible.  It is better to give a “not sure yet” response to buy you time.



woman on road


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4)  Use the “Not today” response

This response works particularly well with kids requests.  When my kids ask to do something we can’t do, I typically respond, “Not today” instead of saying  “No”. They tend to take this well because the response still gives them hope that we may do that activity.  Just not today.


3) Say “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”

Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found using certain words to say “no” help frame one’s sense of power and control.   Heidi Grant Halvorson, director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University explains the difference between the two as follows, ““I don’t” is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. “I can’t” isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.” Whenever you can help it, use the words “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”.  You’ll be more likely to feel empowered and the person making the request will be less likely to do so in the future because they’ll know and respect that the request is something you just don’t do.


walking on a ledge


2) Focus on what you can do

Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, you can focus on what you can. This method works especially well for requests that come from authorities above you like your boss or an elderly relative.  When asked to take on a new project you could say “I’m working on XY project for the next 2 months.  I could take on this new project after that. I would likely give you a better result at that time since I’ll be completely focused on it then. Would that be ok with you?”  Or if an important relative asks you to take care of something you could say “I’ll be very busy with school for the next few weeks.  I have my finals in November.  I can take care of this at that time.  Is that ok with you?”  Focusing on what you can do allows you to avoid saying no but still have control over how you can meet the request.

Smiling woman

1) Just say “No”

In the wise words of Nancy Reagan, sometimes just saying “no” and ending the conversation is the best answer.  This route works especially well for requests that go against your moral or ethical beliefs.  It’s also a good one to teach kids to use when they are hit with peer pressure. The “Just Say No” campaign in the late 80s was a very successful part of the US’ “War On Drugs”.  It focused on discouraging kids from engaging in illicit drug use.  Teaching your kids to “Just Say No” and actually practicing scenarios they might encounter with peer pressure will help them feel confident in saying no to situations which might be harmful to their safety.  The more you learn to just say no earlier in life, the easier it will be for you when you get older with increasing constraints on your time.


just say no sign

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