Five tips for saying no to a native English speaker without saying no

Have you ever received an answer from a native English speaker for something, and you weren’t quite sure whether it was a positive or negative response? They didn’t say no but somehow you had the feeling that they weren’t saying yes either? Or did you find out that the ‘yes’ wasn’t really a yes – it was only meant to appease you or was used as a way of backing out of a conversation?

In Germany it is acceptable to ask for something directly. However, this may be seen by others, particularly native English speakers, as demanding. Additionally, saying no is something that, in my opinion, many native English speakers are bad at. We have many fears – social embarrassment, being seen as pushy, concerns that you might not like us if we say no, or that if we say no that person won’t do anything for us again. We hide behind phrases such as ‘I’m terribly sorry, but…’ ‘Would you mind if…’ Indeed, many English textbooks teach this language as a way of softening, but in my experience in the UK this is the wrong kind of softening because it lacks honesty and integrity. Am I really terribly sorry? When I say ‘would you mind’ am I suggesting there is a choice when in fact I would rather you didn’t choose?

This is particularly difficult for German speakers. How can Germans say no in a more indirect but still completely honest way? And how can German watch out for a yes that’s really a no?

Here are my five tips:

One: Acknowledge or thank the person, particularly if it is an unusual initiative:

David, thank you for asking me to…

David, I appreciate you asking me to…

Two: Instead of saying ‘no’ or ‘I don’t want to’ say

I’d rather not…

I’d prefer not to…

Three: Once you’ve followed steps 1 and 2, give your reason and identify yourself with the decision.

‘I’m not prepared to because…’ Speak in the first person and state how you are personally affected.

Achtung! Note that many native English speakers, particularly the British, are bad at doing this and may hide behind a third party or a rule or regulation. If someone is trying to say no to you using this, watch out for social cues or ask more questions to find out more information.

If you need more time to make the decision, then ask for it.

Four: Give out ‘no’ vibes. Keep eye contact and have a firm, steady voice. Don’t speak too quickly.

Five: if someone is persistent then accept any valid points and repeat your ‘No’. For example ‘I accept that it’s a good opportunity but it’s not something that I’m prepared to do’.

Keep your voice level.

These tips are based on Ken Back and Kate Back’s book ‘Assertiveness at Work’. I highly recommend reading this book if you are interested in learning more about the correct level of directness from a British perspective.