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Your Guide to Being Polite in Difficult Situations: Part Two

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In the first part of this blog post, we talked about why it’s important to use diplomatic language and how to use modal verbs to sound politer when dealing with difficult situations.

Today, we’re going to look at some other ways to soften your language.

Let’s start with situations where you need to tell someone that you are unable to do something, or something won’t be ready on time.

Saying can’t or won’t in this situation sounds unhelpful. To an English ear it sounds almost as if you aren’t trying hard enough or you don’t want to put in the effort to complete the task. It’s much better to phrase the sentence to show that the situation is outside of your control.

For example, instead of saying “I can’t finish the report by 3pm”, or “The report won’t be ready by 3pm”, it’s sounds much more polite to say “I’m not going to be able to get that report finished by 3pm” or, even better: “It’s not going to be possible to get the report finished for you by 3pm”.

This suggests that you have done everything you can to get the report ready, but the circumstances are too difficult.

It also helps to start the sentence with the words “I’m afraid…” or “Unfortunately…”

For example: “I’m afraid it’s not going to be possible to finish the report by 3pm”

Or: “Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to reschedule the meeting”

You can also soften a negative statement by using a positive adjective like “happy” or “comfortable” or “confident” and putting “not entirely” or “not completely” in front of it.

For example:

“I’m not entirely comfortable with those deadlines” is better than saying “I’m uncomfortable with those deadlines” – and MUCH better than saying “I can’t meet those deadlines.”

“I’m not completely confident about this decision” is better than saying, “I’m not confident about this decision” – and MUCH better than saying “I don’t like this decision”.

“I’m not entirely happy with the wording here” is better than saying “I’m not happy with the wording” – and MUCH better than saying “I don’t like how this is written”.

To sound even politer, replace the word not before entirely/completely with phrases that sound less certain or blunt (blunt means hard and direct).

Try starting with words and phrases like “I’m just not sure…” or “I don’t think…”

For example: “I’m just not sure I’m completely confident about this decision.”

Or: “I don’t think I’m entirely happy with those deadlines.”

Lastly, when you need to give someone bad news, you can use qualifiers to modify words and phrases and to make the problem sound less scary.

Focus on qualifiers that express smallness, such as “slightly” “a little bit” “tiny” “a little” and “one or two”.

For example:

“The project has gone slightly over budget.”

“Delivery is going to take a little bit longer than we thought.”

“There’s just one tiny problem with the product.”

“I’m a little concerned about meeting this deadline.”

“The investors have one or two questions about how the new system will work.”

This can sound confusing at first, but remember that politeness in English is about softening your language, using qualifiers and avoiding language that sounds harsh or direct. Combine this with open body language, smiling, listening carefully to your colleagues/customers/peers and saying “thank you” and “sorry”, and you won’t need to worry about sounding rude.

Do you have any questions about using the techniques in this blog post? Let us know in the comments section below!