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How to Say No

You’ve probably experienced this awkward situation: a person makes a request to you in writing, and you have to say no–in writing.

On the telephone or in person, you could respond earnestly, “I’m sorry! I wish I could!” or “Unfortunately, I have to say no.” But it’s a bit more challenging in writing. In writing, you can’t add gestures or intonations to soften the message. And for the page or screen you must choose your words carefully–the other person may read them over and over and show them to others.

graphic showing do's and don'ts of saying no in writing

Here are suggestions for those “bad news” messages.


  • Do say no clearly. Avoid being so polite that the reader may not be sure you denied the request.
  • Do explain why you must say no.
  • Do state what you can do for the reader, even though it is not what the reader requested.
  • Do use positive language wherever possible. For example, open with “Thank you for asking for a free copy” or “I appreciate your requesting permission.”
  • Do treat the reader respectfully. Imagine you are writing to one of your favorite people.


  • Don’t write if you are worried that your message might be offensive or confusing. Instead, talk in person or on the telephone for two-way communication. Then write a message confirming what was discussed.
  • If you are responding as a representative of your company, don’t criticize the policy that requires you to say no. Otherwise, you undermine the company and may seem untrustworthy.
  • Don’t use negative expressions that may offend or embarrass the reader, such as “It is unreasonable,”  “I never agreed,” “You are mistaken,” or “You should.”

Good example of a negative message:

Dear Keith:

Thank you for asking me about taking the week before Christmas as a vacation week. I wish I could say yes. Unfortunately, in our retail environment I can’t.

The week before Christmas is the busiest week of the year in our store. We may ring up 10 percent of our annual sales in that week alone. That’s why we have a policy that requires nearly every employee to work that week.

I said “nearly every employee” because we do have a rotation that permits employees to take vacation time that week or the week after Christmas every four years if they wish to. You will be eligible for either of those weeks in your fourth year with us.

The store is closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and you will have both of them off as paid holidays. Also, because you are working Christmas Eve, you will have New Year’s Eve off. I hope those days off will make up a little for having to work the week before Christmas.

Again, thank you for checking with me, Keith. Please let me know if you want to talk more about the Christmas vacation policy. You can also read more details about vacation time in the employee handbook.


Notice that the message doesn’t criticize Keith for asking about a policy he probably should have known already–there’s no point in that. Embarrassing or lecturing the reader never helps. Saying no is enough.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “How to Say No”

  • Wow, now that was a nicely written rejection email, heheh. You could always do what one of my friends does and just put random smilies after every single sentence to convey emotions. 😉


  • I just saw this today. We were in the running for an advertising RFP but did not get the project. I was pretty offended by a non-profit-govt-funded group today. We have been in business over a decade, and the decision maker called and kept ripping our presentation to shreds. Quite unprofessional! They kept saying, “You should have..”, “The other firms presented this way…”, “You did it all wrong.”, “We didn’t care about the client you worked with.” I finally had to get the person off the phone because I had enough. Our firm has won contracts and lost them. This was by-far the most tacky rejection we have ever encountered. I was glad to see this article.

  • how about a situation like this:

    you’ve called 4 hotels and required some details(prices of rooms of different standards, the number of the available rooms within the given dates), and then your client decided to choose one of them. You had to inform those hotels that were not chosen of the update. How to politely tell them in the e-mail?

  • Hi, Abbie. Here is what you want to include:

    1. A warm opening such as a thank-you for the details.

    2. A brief description of the decision-making process that presents it as reasonable rather than haphazard. Something like “Our clients reviewed the proposals closely. . . .”

    3. The bad news, sometimes implied rather than directly stated, for example, “The client chose another hotel.”

    4. Acknowledgment and appreciation of the effort the individual put into the proposal to you.

    5. Good wishes for the future.


  • Thank you so much for the advice. I feel that I’ve chosen the right things and the right words to tell them! Encouraging feedback! ^^

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