How to Say “No”

“No” is one of the easiest words in our vocabulary. Even toddlers know the meaning of this word and how to use it. However, it is also the hardest word to say. How to express “no” is related to interpersonal relationship, team collaboration, and many aspects of our life and career.

Learning how to say no is an important part of communication. I’ve summarized the following ways to express no. Choose the one that works best in your situation.

1. Say no straightforwardly

In some cases, saying no directly is the best choice. For instance, someone knocks at your door and asks if you would like to make a donation to their organization or to use their service. If you do not want to, just say “No, thank you.” Sometimes, we try to find different reasons to explain why, which gives the other party a feeling that there is a chance to make you change mind.  

For example, if your explanation is “you asked for $50 donation. That’s quite a lot and I do not have that much cash.” The other party can continue to ask, “I understand. But how about just $5? It is just a small amount, but it helps a lot.” This makes it hard for you to refuse again.

2. Use “I wish I could…, but …”

When a request is from a friend, a colleague or a client, it may not be appropriate to just say no directly. You can try the pattern “I wish I could…, but…” or “I hate saying no…, but…”

“I wish I could attend that meeting, but I have a project due soon and I have to work on it the whole day.”

 “I hate saying no to you, but the time does not work for me.”

The first part of the sentence is to soften the tone, and the second part is to refuse.

3. Use “That sounds like a good idea, but …” or “Thank you for…, but …”

When someone makes a suggestion or a request, you could not accept but you want to acknowledge its value. Then you can say sentences that start with a compliment or an acknowledgement.

“That sounds like a good idea, but I don’t think I am the best person for it because of potential conflict of interest.”

“Thank you for thinking of me, but I have too much going on this week. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

4. Make a lesser commitment (“I cannot…., but I can…”)

Another way to say no to a request is to tell him/her that you are not able to do what is requested, but you are willing to help in some way, such as providing relevant information or referring another person.

“This topic is beyond my expertise. I am afraid I could not give you much valuable input. I know Dr. Smith has written a research paper related to this topic. Maybe you can meet with him and see whether he can give any suggestions.”

“I’ve decided not to volunteer this year because I am feeling over-committed. But I can share this volunteering information with my friends. Some of them may be interested.”

“Sorry I cannot help you with that, but here are 3 awesome resources that would be helpful to you.”

5. When you are not sure about a commitment, don’t say “yes” or “no” on the spot

Sometimes we are not sure whether a request makes sense or whether we should accept it or not. Don’t make a rushed decision that you will be regretful about. Give yourself more time to think about it. For example:

“I need to check my schedule for the next week. I will let you know by the end of the day. “

“I have to consult with my wife to see what she thinks. I will follow up with you soon.”

 “I need a little bit more time to think about it. I will give you a call about my decision.”


No matter in which way to say “no,” keep the following two points in mind:

1. Be clear about your position, and don’t just say “yes” to avoid disappointing someone. Accepting everything will keep adding burden to yourself. When you say yes to many things, you will barely have time and energy for the most important things.

2. Don’t be ambiguous. No matter how polite you sound, be sure to let the other party know that it is a refusal to avoid misunderstandings. The basic rule is “don’t say maybe if you want to say no.”


how to say no