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Don’t Blame Your Reader When Saying No

In a recent business writing course, someone was writing a message to say no to an employee’s unworkable request. In his first draft, he blamed the reader, writing, “Had your request complied with our guidelines, I may have been able to justify an exception.”

That sentence blames the reader, and reader blame is a no-no in a no message.

When you write to tell someone no, your message will already disappoint the individual. Why add to the negative feeling by pinning the blame on the reader?

This message saying no to an employee’s request for time off shows what NOT to do:

Hi Cheri.

I received your message about taking paid time off on Friday. You know Sarah and Margot are scheduled to take that day off, so I am not sure why you asked. You know the policy is to have at least two people on the floor on Fridays.


Tyler’s message not only says no. It blames Cheri for asking.

This improved version communicates the rationale without blame:

Hi Cheri.

I received your message about taking paid time off on Friday. Because Sarah and Margot are scheduled to take that day off, I cannot approve your request. We have to have at least two people on the floor on Fridays.

I am sorry it did not work out this time.


If you need to emphasize company or organizational policy in a no message, you can do it without blame:

Hi Michael,

I’m sorry I can’t say yes to your request to use the common room for a garage sale. Our condo association rules state that the common room cannot be used for events that are open to the public.

Of course, you are welcome to use the uncovered parking lot for the sale. You would just need to let me know and to give residents a 48-hour notice of your plan.


If you would like to learn more about saying no to employees, clients, and other people, get my book Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. Its chapter “Say No Clearly and Courageously” shows how to say no in even the stickiest situations.

Have you ever been blamed for making a request?


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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.

2 comments on “Don’t Blame Your Reader When Saying No”

  • No disrespect but there are 2 typos in the examples above:

    “We have to have least two people on the floor on Fridays.” [missing ‘at]


    “Of course, you are welcome to using the uncovered parking lot for the sale.” [should be ‘use’ not ‘using’]

  • Hi, Jennifer. Thanks so much for pointing out the errors. I have corrected them.

    I published the blog post just before racing out to meet friends visiting from out of town. I know better than to just run my grammar and spelling checker and read through a piece twice. But that’s what I did under time pressure.

    Again, thank you. I appreciate the chance to correct the errors.


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