How to politely say no at work (with examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 5 September 2022 | Published 30 November 2021

Updated 5 September 2022

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

It’s important to be able to say no sometimes in your job so that you can prioritise and work comfortably without feeling overwhelmed. If you’re in a leadership role, being firm and sometimes saying no is important for leading a team effectively. Knowing how to say no in a nice way means you can be assertive but still professional at work and can say no but still maintain your reputation as a good colleague. In this article, we discuss how to say no politely.

Why does saying no matter?

Saying no sometimes is just as important as saying yes. It’s great to take advantage of the opportunities offered to you. It also matters that you’re a team player who is willing to support and help others. However, saying yes to every opportunity, event and client can quickly increase your workload and make you feel overwhelmed. It can also mean you miss out on more valuable opportunities that align with your career goals because you’re already busy with other tasks and commitments.

Taking on too much work can mean that the things you do are below your usual standard because you’re trying to do too many things at one time. By sometimes saying no you can apply more of your focus and effort to a smaller number of tasks. It demonstrates that you’re capable of prioritising and planning your own time and workload effectively. Saying yes to everything can also have an impact on your work-life balance. As your workload grows, you’re likely to find yourself spending more time working with less time to recover.

Why saying no politely matters

When you’re saying no to someone at work you need to give your answer politely, regardless of whether you’re talking to a director, manager or a more junior member of staff. This helps to maintain good relationships with the people you work with. If you’re assertive and professional then your colleagues or employer is more likely to respect and accept your decision. Saying no clearly and politely also gives them a better understanding of your reasons for saying no. It’s also easier to say no when you understand how to do it in a polite and professional way.

Related: Key attributes of professionalism in the workplace

Knowing when to say no

You need to use your judgment to decide when to say no. When someone asks you to do something that’s additional to your usual work, think carefully about what to do before saying yes or no. Consider how you would benefit from taking on the task, whether you’d enjoy it and whether you have enough time and the capacity to take it on. There are various commitments you might decide to say no to. These include extra meetings and appointments, additional tasks and projects and opportunities that aren't related to your long and short-term career goals. If an opportunity or commitment clashes with current projects, would take up a large amount of your time or isn't related to your goals, you might want to consider saying no.

How to politely say no

There are some straightforward steps you can take if you’re unsure about how to say no in a nice way. Following these steps means you assert yourself but are still polite and professional. You can also demonstrate that you’re a good team member by saying no politely and suggesting a different solution.

1. Be straightforward

Give an honest and straightforward answer rather than responses that are less committal such as “I’m not sure” or “I’ll think about it”. Be clear so that the person you’re speaking to understands what your answer is and that that’s the final answer. Only say things like “Maybe another time” if that’s what you mean. If you’re saying that just to avoid the question now be aware that the person you’re talking to might ask you again in the future.

Related: 18 people skills that can help you succeed in the workplace

2. Explain yourself briefly

When you’re saying no politely you need to give a brief explanation of why you’re saying no. This can make the answer easier to accept and helps the person you’re speaking to understand the situation. A brief and honest explanation is more appropriate than a long and detailed answer, which can cause more confusion. One or two sentences explaining your circumstances and reasons is sufficient.

3. Suggest an alternative

Suggesting an alternative solution when you say no to someone demonstrates that you’re an effective team worker and also makes your response more polite. An example of this is suggesting an alternative person to ask for help when you’re too busy. This shows that you’re contributing to the team and are willing to support others but still need respect for your own boundaries. The people around you are more likely to respect your boundaries when you set them clearly and politely.

Related: How to be assertive at work in 7 steps (with tips)

4. Maintain your position

Once you’ve given your answer, you have to maintain this position. If you change your mind and say yes it indicates to others that they can eventually convince you to do things. You’re then likely to receive more similar requests in the future. By remaining firm, your colleagues or employer can see that you’re confident in your decision. This means they’re less likely to try to change your mind or ask the same thing in the future.

Related: Types of communicators at work (and how to deal with them)

How to say no after you’ve said yes

Sometimes you need to cancel at the last minute or something arises after you’ve said yes that’s urgent or more of a priority. In these situations, you need to be honest and let the other person know as soon as possible. There are some steps you can take to express that you’ve changed your mind in a polite and professional manner.

1. Acknowledge that you previously said yes

Part of communicating that you’ve changed your mind in a professional way is to acknowledge that you said yes previously rather than pretending you’ve forgotten. This shows the person you’re talking to that you’re aware that this change affects their plans. It also shows that you’re being honest.

Related: What is assertive communication? (With tips and skills)

2. Apologise and give an explanation

Because the change of answers impacts the other person, it’s important that you apologise for causing any inconvenience. Also, explain why you’ve had to change your mind. As with saying no politely when you’re first asked to do something, keep your explanation clear, brief and straightforward. A short explanation that a more urgent commitment has arisen is enough.

3. Suggest an alternative

As with politely saying no to an initial request, it’s professional to suggest an alternative solution if you’re saying no after saying yes. Changing your mind could mean the person you’re speaking to now has additional work to do or needs to change their plans. Suggesting an alternative demonstrates that you understand this, want to help and are taking responsibility. Appropriate suggestions could include finding a new time for a meeting or suggesting another colleague who could take the task on instead.

Related: 14 ways to project body language confidence (with example)

4. Be open to feedback, questions or concerns

The last-minute change might be disappointing for the other person or could cause them inconvenience, so allow them to express any feedback or concerns. Remain polite and professional if they give you negative feedback and acknowledge their response. Give the other person a chance to ask any questions they have as well. However, make sure you politely decline to answer any questions that are unprofessional, invasive or inappropriate. Most people are able to accept your answer, but if the other person becomes upset or angry, do your best to remain professional and calm.

Related: 10 communication techniques to help you in the workplace

Ways to politely say no

If you’re uncertain about how to phrase your words when saying no at work, there are various approaches you can take. The most important thing is to be clear, straightforward and final.

You can adapt the following suggestions to be a better fit for your situation.

  • “Unfortunately I’m too busy today but I am able to help you next week.”

  • “Thank you for thinking of me but this isn’t something I’m interested in getting involved in.”

  • “I’m the wrong choice for this project but I can help you think of someone else who is more suitable.”

  • “I can’t come because my schedule is full this week, could we arrange something for next week instead?”

  • “I would love to help but I’m already involved in a project with a similar deadline so I can’t get involved.”

  • “My team is currently very busy so I need to focus on that work, perhaps someone else could help instead.”

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