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7 Ways to Say “No” Without Offending Anyone

say noHow many ways are there to say “No” without offending anyone’s feeling? Well, there is “No, I can’t”, “No, I don’t have time” and “No, I don’t want to”. But the problem is that many of us try to avoid situations that require us to say “No” to people. In almost every culture this little word is associated with rejection, failure, egoism and a lack of tact and empathy towards others.

I can not recall how many times I have eaten burnt, undercooked, bland and poorly tasting dishes simply because I did not want to hurt the feelings of the person who had cooked them. Or the times when I bought something, I did not need, because I felt guilty leaving a shop empty-handed after spending 20 minutes of the shop assistant’s time.

Whether it is our manager, a customer service representative or an acquaintance asking for a favor, for some unexplainable reason many of us feel mental resistance when we have to voice a straight-forward “No”.

If you are a rare exception, who has no problem saying “I wish I could, but I do not want to” please share your secret! What is running through your head when an 8-year old with huge blue eyes offers you to buy a box of Girl Scouts cookies? Or when your boss asks you in a matter-of-fact voice if you can stay after hours to finish a project?

How do you say “No” without offending anyone or feeling guilty afterwards?

On the other hand, how do you NOT say “No” when you know that if you go along with everything other people want from you, you would be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted?

I believe the answer to this question lies in the wisdom of the Eastern world. You see, many oriental cultures, Chinese being one of them, do not even have a “N”- word. Instead, they use thousands of ways to express their disagreement and none of them involves saying a straight-forward “No”.

There is a great lesson to be learned from such approach to communication.

If just like me, you sometimes find it difficult to be direct about saying “No”, you can still be assertive and express you disagreement in a more subtle, yet equally powerful way. The great thing about this method is that it gets your point across without making you look bad, unprofessional, insensitive or uncaring.

Here are 7 Sneaky Ways to Say “No” without Offending Anyone

1. “This sounds interesting, but I have too much on my plate at the moment.”

When you start your disagreement with a compliment: “this sounds interesting”, it makes the person less defensive and gives you a valid reason to decline “I have too much on my plate at the moment”.

2. “I’m sorry but last time I did ___, I had a negative experience.”

This is a life-saver for me every time I have to explain to people that I do not eat meat. Before I would say that I was a vegetarian, but for some reason this explanation has never worked on hospitable Italian grandmothers. They would try to feed me bacon, sausage and octopuses (yuck!) explaining it with “this is not meat” or “I just put a little in this dish”.

Now I simply say, “I’m sorry, but I can not eat meat. Last time I did, I had a terrible headache.” And it works like a charm, because no one wants to hurt you on purpose.

The focus here is not on what you want or do not want to do, but on your previous bad experience.

3. “I’d love to do this, but ____”

This is a great way of saying that you like the idea, you are willing to help, but you just can not do it at the moment.
Note: Just do not go into a lengthy justification of why you can not do it.

First, it is not necessary. Time is a limited resource and when you say “yes” to one task, you have to say “no” to other opportunities that might be more important, urgent and beneficial to you at the moment. Second, offering a lengthy explanation makes you sound guilty and unsure, so people might push further to see if you will agree.

4. “I’m not the best person to help on this. Why don’t you try X?”

If you feel that you can not contribute much to the task, have no time or lack the resources, do not beat around the bush! Let the person know it up front. This, however, does not mean that you can not be helpful. You can still refer the person to a lead they can follow up on.

5. “I can’t do this, but I can do ____ (lesser commitment).”

This is another variation of the previous method. You are saying “No” to a request, but you are still offering your help on your own terms, choosing the easier, less time-consuming commitment.

6. “You look great, but ___ does not do you justice”

This is a great way to diplomatically express your opinion when someone asks you a question about their appearance, without hurting the other person’s feelings (especially if the person asking you is your friend, your superior or your spouse).

7. “That sounds great, but I just can't put one more thing on my calendar for the next few weeks. Let me call you ___ (specific time range).”

Sometimes you might get a proposal, an idea or a request that sounds interesting. But considering the amount of tasks on your to-do list, you do not feel like taking another commitment just yet.

In this case, instead of saying a straight out “No”, you are giving yourself time to reflect before making a final decision: “Let me call you ___ (specific time range).

However, if you are not interested, do not leave the person hanging on. Use other ways to say “No” that are more definitive (e.g. methods #1,#2 or #3). It is more disappointing when the person is counting on you and you let them down.
Do you find it difficult to say express your disagreement or turn down an offer?

What are the phrases that you use to say “No” without offending another person, yet being firm in your decision?

  • Antonio
    April 18, 2012 at 10:03 am

    It’s very important not to offender anyone, because it can cause relationship and friendship problems. Thanks for your post.

    • Arina
      April 24, 2012 at 4:53 am

      I agree. There are hundreds of ways to say “No” to people without offending them. The most important part, is to say “No” with the right attitude. When you wish the person well in your heart, they will usually  not get offended or angry with you. 

  • acadiANNA
    April 21, 2012 at 7:07 am

    When you say yes when  you really mean no, you will most likely end up regretting your decision.

    • Arina
      April 24, 2012 at 4:41 am

      Exactly! And then you will also end up having all those negative feeling towards the person, who asked you for a favor (when it is YOU who actually said “yes”).

  • azam nawaz
    April 22, 2012 at 4:22 am

    please guide me about blogging . i have recently passed law examination and now i am a practicing lawyer 

    • Arina
      April 24, 2012 at 4:43 am

      Congratulations with your exams!
      Here is the best resource for everyone, who wants to start their own blog: 

  • Patrick Figueroa
    September 23, 2012 at 7:44 am

    Be frank in saying no yet make another way…. don,t be lazy with the opportunity.

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