By Corporate English Solutions

27 May 2022 - 13:35

Reading time: 5 minutes

Refusing stakeholder requests while trying to maintain a good working relationship can seem like a contradiction.  It can also feel like a difficult thing to do in an email, as many of us worry that using the wrong words might negatively affect the professional relationship.

Here, we share some useful tips to help you confidently and professionally write refusal emails while still maintaining a good relationship with your stakeholders.  


The importance of email in business communication is undeniable. We use email for everything, from meeting requests and reporting to negotiating with colleagues and clients. And some emails are harder to write than others.  

Saying no to stakeholders in writing is especially challenging, as we can’t gauge their response immediately. They can also share our email widely, even with people we don’t expect it to be shared with. This can make it hard to know what to say and how to structure the message. 

Learning how to write effective refusal emails and convince your recipient(s) to take no for an answer will help you to:  

  • protect your time against multiple repeat requests 
  • uphold your professional, assertive yet empathetic reputation 
  • maintain engagement and collaboration with your stakeholders. 

Read on to discover how to say no professionally in an email, building confidence, credibility and connection. 

Step 1: Plan your response with the needs of your recipient in mind  

The first thing to do is carefully consider the needs and expectations of your target audience for your email. Reflect on the situation, audience, purpose, and outcome of the subject being discussed and ask yourself: 

  • Why is this request being made? 
  • How important is the request? 
  • Is there a more suitable alternative solution? 
  • If so, how likely are they to accept it?  
  • What is the ideal outcome for you? 

Then, reflect on the professional context, the best approach to communication, and the message itself by asking yourself: 

  • How senior is the person making the request? 
  • Are you able to refuse this person? 
  • Will you include a detailed explanation for refusing or a brief one? 

 (You can learn more about the ‘SAPOCAM’ checklist in our previous article: how to get your business writing read.

Step 2: Structure your email carefully to encourage acceptance of your refusal

The way you structure your refusal email can have a significant impact on how your recipient perceives and responds to it.   

To make your refusal emails flow coherently, try using the ODAC structure. This will help your readers process the information and lead them gently to the refusal. Plus, it’s more likely to lead to a positive outcome.  

The Opening 

Your email opening should be written in a warm tone and show the recipient that you value your relationship with them. Replace impersonal, over-formal phrases with thanks and a specific reference to the situation. Show that you understand their perspective with empathy for their needs and feelings. 

The Details 

Gently lead into the refusal by clearly explaining your reasons first then stating the facts simply and objectively. If you have to mention a policy or process, try to add some benefits of this to the reader. 

The Action 

The action part of your email is the bit where you suggest genuine, viable alternatives. This helps avoid the reader feeling dismissed and fosters better collaboration.  

The Closing points 

Before signing off your email, be sure to write positively and personally about the future of your relationship with the recipient. 

You can find out more about using ODAC in our email writing courses, which we offer as part of our professional communication skills training. 

Discover professional communication skills training courses > 

Step 3: Adapt your tone to the reader(s)

Giving careful consideration to your tone will make your refusal emails sound more reasonable and therefore easier to accept. Your tone should be confident and considerate so that you sound friendly and helpful, while still being professional. 

Phrases that will appeal to one group of readers may anger or upset another. It’s therefore crucial to spend time analysing your audience and adapting your tone to their expectations and needs.   

Consider these factors that will influence your tone:  

  • Your company’s established brand/business tone 
  • The seniority of your recipient and your relationship with them 
  • Your recipient’s knowledge of the subject matter 
  • Your recipient’s preferred style of communication 

Use positive words 

By avoiding words like “no”, “do not” and “cannot” we can soften a refusal for readers who prefer less direct communication. Replace these with alternatives such as “have to”, “unable to” and “can only”.  

Avoid being too blunt in your refusal 

For readers who may find the refusal difficult to accept, weave the explanation into the refusal.  Rather than: 

We can’t spare anyone from our team for your project. 

… why not try: 

Although the current restructuring prevents us from adding an additional project manager, we would like to support your project.  

Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do  

Another option is to weave the alternative suggestion into the refusal. For example, instead of: 

We cannot accept your application to take this training.  

… why not try: 

We are sorry that all available places on this training course have already been taken up. We can offer you a place on our next session in September if this is suitable? 

Avoid placing blame or showing suspicion  

Even if the reader has made a mistake or the request is unreasonable, it’s important to remain professional and positive when answering. Projecting a negative, “not my job” attitude in your emails is dangerous to your organisation’s image and reputation.  

For example, instead of: 

You've missed the deadline for this session. 

… why not try: 

The deadline for this session was 2 April; you can apply for the next session from August. 

Important takeaways

The importance of email communication in the workplace is indisputable, so learning how to politely say no in an email is a skill that can benefit employees across a wide range of industries and sectors.  

Saying no to your stakeholders in a personal and empathetic way means you won’t jeopardise your relationship with them every time you refuse a request they make. 

If you follow the steps in the ODAC process and carefully consider each element, you can easily write positive, confident and convincing refusal emails whenever you need to.

Discover British Council English and communication skills training courses 

We provide online, face-to-face and blended business writing courses – including email writing courses – to help you and your employees boost your business writing skills.  

Follow the link below to find out more about our in-person and online written communication skills training.

Training Courses overview page >