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Business English Lessons: Saying No Politely

In this lesson students learn some basic expressions for politely declining offers, invitations, and requests. Students then practice using the expressions.



Put students in small groups. Tell them to discuss the following with their group:

1. Has anyone ever offended you by accident?  How?
2. Have you ever offended anyone by accident?  How?

Give students a few minutes to discuss, and then meet as a class to get some quick feedback.


Polite Ways to Say No

Explain that one way to accidentally offend someone is by being too direct when saying no. Explain that in English we decline requests, offers, and invitations in a certain way, and that simply saying “no” or “no thanks” isn’t always acceptable.

Explain that we often do three things to politely say no in English:

1. Make a statement of regret.
(I’m sorry…, I’d really like to, but…I appreciate the offer, but…, etc.)
2. Explain why the answer is no.
(I’m really busy right now, We aren’t available that weekend, etc.)
3. Offer an alternative, if possible.
(I might be able to do it next week, John might be able to help you with that, etc.)

Give your class some examples of expressions we use to say no.


Polite ways to say no to a request

I’d love to help you, but right now I’m really busy with…
I wish I could, but right now I need to focus on…
Normally I’d be able to, but right now I have to….

Polite ways to say no to an offer

I appreciate the offer, but…
That would be great, but I’m already working on…
Thank you for the offer, but my schedule is full at the moment.

Polite ways to say no to invitations to social events

That sounds great, but….
I’m sorry I can’t that night. I have to….
I really appreciate the invite, but…


Practice 1

Have your students practice the expressions for saying no politely. Give them the following in a handout:

Directions: Read the following situations. For each situation, write what you think would be a good way to say no.

1.  One of your coworkers has just asked you to go out for drinks on Friday night after work. You don’t drink and don’t like going to bars.
2. You are about to leave for your lunch break when one of your coworkers stops you. He wants to know if you can review some financial documents with him before you leave to take your break.
3. You are a graphic designer working as a private contractor. One of your former clients calls you on the phone. She wants to know if you would be interested in doing another job for her. You are busy and don’t want the assignment.
4. You work in sales. Mike, one of your coworkers, has a conference call with an important customer. Since you know more about the product than your coworker, Mike asks you to join the conference call and help him make the sale. You are busy and don’t have the time to help Mike.
5. Two of your coworkers approach you and ask if you want to be on the company softball team. You don’t like softball very much and like to spend your free time with your family.
6. An acquaintance of yours has just started his own business. He wants to hire you to design his website. You don’t think it would be worth your time.


Practice 2

Break students into pairs. Tell students to write five questions for their partner. The five questions should be either offers, requests, or invitations to social events. When students have finished writing their questions, tell them to ask their partner the questions they wrote. Student A asks the question, and student B has to politely say no. Students then switch roles. Walk around the room to make sure that students are declining the requests in an appropriate way.


Wrapping up

Follow up the lesson with this article about saying no to your boss. Have students read the article for homework and answer the following questions:

1. What advice in the article do you agree with? Why?
2. What advice in the article do you disagree with? Why?
3. When do you think it’s okay to say no to your boss?