You can be considerate and respectful – and still say no to a colleague.

Sometimes, the most respectful thing for you, for your company and even for the colleague who is asking you to take on more is to say, “No.” Here are some tips for how to decline a request graciously:

Think before you respond.

If possible, don’t give your answer immediately. You can weigh your options and limitations and get back to the person later. And then be sure to do so.

Say: “To be honest, I’m not sure if I can help you this time because of my workload. I’m afraid I might not be able to give it my full attention. But let me look at my schedule and get back to you on that tomorrow morning.”

Accentuate the positive.

Appreciate the opportunity and still say no.

Say: “I’m glad that we work closely enough that you feel you could ask me this. I’m sorry I can’t help you this time—I have a couple other deadlines I have to meet.”

Give a reason when possible—not a fabrication.

You want your colleague to feel positive as he or she walks away, so the reason needs to be real. Lies will always come back to bite you.

Be straight about the future.

If you don’t want to leave the door open for a next ask, be clear. State your reason and then stop talking.

Say: “I appreciate your request but I have other priorities and can’t take on the extra work.”

Listen to their response.

Sometimes when you say no, your colleague will understand; other times, he or she might be angry or annoyed. You will build the relationship by listening to their angst—and acknowledging it.

Say: “I understand you’re in a bind, and you know I’d help if I could.”

Stand your ground.

Don’t give in to flattery or bullying. You need to remember that the problem is his or hers—not yours.

“No” language examples.

  • Not now but later: “I’m on a deadline, and I can’t take anything more on until it’s finished. Can I follow up with you on Friday?”
  • Talking to your manager: “Does this take priority over what you’ve asked me to finish by Tuesday by 2:00?”
  • Closing the door: “Thanks for asking me but you need to know that I can’t take on any more work—I need to focus on my top responsibilities.”

For information on Emily Post Business Etiquette Programs contact Steven Puettner, Director of Sales, at or 802-860-1814.