How to Say No in English Politely (Without Feeling Guilty)

Jun 26, 2019 | How To Develop Skills

Feeling crazy busy, overwhelmed, and stressed out? Sounds like you need to stop saying yes.

It’s okay to say no. In fact, you can say no in English politely — without stress, without guilt. Today I’ll show you exactly how. 

Here’s why it’s important: 

Our lives get busier and busier and for our own sanity (peace of mind) sometimes we HAVE to say no. 

Maybe you already said yes to helping out at school; you said yes to driving everyone to that big event; you said yes to baking the cake for our friend’s birthday; you said yes to organizing the leaving gift for our colleague; you said yes to caring for someone’s kids or their pet or garden while they are away and then someone asks you to do just one more thing — how are you going to feel? Crazy! Right?

But you might also feel guilty. So you don’t say ‘no.’  Or you don’t want to disappoint someone. So instead you say ‘yes’ and immediately regret it.

Now you’re overwhelmed and super stressed! 

With this lesson you’ll have the strategies and tools you need to say no in a polite and caring way.

Tips on how to say no in English — without guilt.

Lesson by Annemarie

When you need to say no in English, be honest but don’t share too many details.

I could give you a whole list of fake or phoney excuses you could use to say no to something. Like ‘I’m sorry I can’t make it, my bird is sick and I need to give it medicine on the hour’.

But here at Speak Confident English we think honesty is the best policy.

When we need to say ‘no’ to an invitation or a request it is important to be honest but you don’t have to give lots of details. Whether you are really busy or it is just something you really do not want to do, something like this is honest and clear but doesn’t give extra details or excuses:

  • I’m so sorry I can’t make it, I already have something planned. I hope it goes well!
  • I would love to but I’m not free then, sorry. I’d love to catch up with you next month when I have more time.

But what if they really insist or there’s a lot of pressure or saying no is hard?

An important thing to do is make sure you do not leave room for ‘maybe’.

If you say something like this, then you have not completely said no, so these are the phrases to *avoid*:

  • I’m pretty busy right now, let’s see how things go.
  • I’m not sure I can make it, I will have to check my calendar.
  • Can I let you know later?
  • Let me think about it.
  • Maybe, I’ll see if I have time.
  • I hope I can help you with that/be there/join you.

These responses leave a glimmer of hope that you still might say yes.

Instead, if you definitely want to say no, then say something that leaves no room for maybe:

  • I’m afraid I have to say no sorry. I just have too much going on right now.
  • I have a lot on my plate right now so I am so sorry I can’t help out/join you/be there.

But what if when you say no, you’re disappointing someone?

Sometimes we worry that we will disappoint someone or let them down by saying ‘no’.

If you explain clearly and include how you are feeling, then most people will understand. For example:

  • I need to say ‘no’ sorry. I’m just so overwhelmed lately, I have taken on too much.
  • I’m so sorry, I would love to, but I really have over-committed, and it’s stressing me out.
  • I’m so stretched right now. I hate to disappoint you, but I just can’t deal with everything I have going on. I hope you understand.

But what if I already said yes?

Ah, now here’s a real hard one. 

The most difficult situation is when we already said yes to something – helping make the costumes for the concert, baking cookies for the bake-sale, running the neighborhood clean-up weekend, hosting the family get-together, babysitting the neighbor’s children, helping a friend with their accounts. 

Sometimes we said ‘yes’ but things have changed and now we simply have too much on our plate. 

We have a common phrasal verb for this in English: to back out of something.

The idea of backing out (back out means to not do something you said you would do) stresses us out and actually going through with it and doing it also stresses us out. Either way, we’re freaking out. So, in this case, we have to look at it honestly — do we have the time and energy to do what we said we would and stay sane and healthy by the end of it? – if they answer is ‘no’ then we definitely need to politely back out.

Here’s how to do that:

Step 1: Apologize and explain

  • I’m so sorry to let you down but I cannot … timewise I just cannot make it happen. 
  • I know I promised to… but I have a lot on my plate right now and I won’t be able to do it after all. I’m so sorry.
  • I feel terrible about this but I won’t be able to… Things are so hectic right now and I have over-committed. I’m so sorry.

Step 2: Offer an alternative (if possible)

  • Maybe… could help you?
  • Perhaps I could see if … could come/help/be there/take it on?
  • How about I see if… is free to…?
  • I have some time next month, maybe we could look at it/catch up/try again then?

Step 3: Finish with your hopes

  • I hope you understand.
  • I hope you can forgive me.
  • I hope you can find someone else.
  • I hope it goes well.

So, now you have lots of ways to say no in English and even say ‘no’ after you already said ‘yes’.

This is a great time to practice.

Can you think of a time when you said ‘yes’ to something and you really regretted it, a time when you took on too much and felt stressed? What happened?

Let’s go back in time. What was the situation and what would you say differently to politely say ‘no’?

Share with me in the comments below. It’s the best way to practice, get feedback, and learn from others in the Confident English Community.

~ Annemarie

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