Sounding polite in difficult situations

In a professional setting, sounding polite is important. But because English is our second language, we may be unaware that some of the sentences we say to people can come across as rude or too direct. Naturally, we would want to maintain good relationships at work with our superiors, colleagues, clients or customers.

So I’m going to share with you several ways that you can sound polite in a professional setting.  The first part talks about how you can ask questions politely. The second is how to ask for help without making it sound like an order. Then we’ll talk about how to point out mistakes and lastly how to express disagreement without offending the other person.

  • Asking questions politely

When we are in a professional setting, asking questions is highly encouraged. However, it’s best to keep your questions indirect to avoid sounding harsh or offending the person.

Here are examples of direct questions which may come across as rude, bossy or demanding.

“Where is the toilet?”

“What is the objective of this meeting?”

“Why did you send the newsletter?”

You can use the following phrases to make your questions sound less direct and more polite.

“Do you know…”

Example: “Do you know where the toilet is?”

“Could you tell me…”

Example: “Could you tell me the objective of the meeting?”

“Would you mind…”

Example: “Would you mind sharing why you sent the newsletter?

You can also use phrases such as “Excuse me” or “Pardon me for asking” before asking your question to sound extra polite.


  • Asking for help: Requests vs Orders

Do you notice that when someone tells you to do something, it can be kind of irritating if they don’t say please? Saying something as simple as “Pick me up after work” sounds innocent enough, but you may be accused of sounding too direct and end up offending the person you are speaking to.

Here are some examples of requests that sound like orders.

“Pass me that pen.”

“Pick me up after work.”

“Print this document.”

Even if it is as easy as passing a pen, people don’t really like to be bossed around. People like to feel as if they’re being acknowledged as human beings, and that their opinions matter.

There are several ways to soften the above examples, depending on the situation that you are in and the request you are making.

This table shows the levels of politeness you can make reference to when you need to make a request.

Level of politenessExample
Very politeI would be grateful if you could … .
I would appreciate if you could … .
PoliteCould you please… ?
Could you  … , please?
Polite but directCould you … ?
Would you … ?
More direct Please … .

*adapted from speakspeak.com

So as an example, instead of saying

“Pass me that pen”, you can say “Could you please pass me that pen?”

“Pick me up after work”, you can say “I would appreciate if you could pick me up after work.”

“Print this document’”, you can say “Could you print this document?”

Saying only “please” before your request, might come across as bossy to certain people, so it should be better to say “Could you please…”. This sounds polite and not direct.

If you were communicating to someone who you’re not very close to, such as an acquaintance, a  customer, or to your superiors, it would be best to be “very polite” as referred to in the table. This is because they may not know you that well, and you would like to show your appreciation to them for helping you.

One more thing to remember. Always say “thank you”. And say it like you mean it. Everybody loves to feel appreciated. It’s really strange how so many people still do not say thank you, and that includes me sometimes. Make it a habit. It’s common courtesy.


  • Pointing out mistakes – Avoid “you” and use “I”

When pointing out other people’s mistakes, or expressing our disagreement over something that another person was responsible for, it’s best to avoid using the word “you” to avoid any conflict.

Most people do not appreciate being told that they’ve done something wrong, so how you relay the fault should be done with care. It should be expressed in a way that points that something is wrong and not that someone did something wrong.

Here are a few examples where you can come off as too direct.

“You have made a mistake.”

“You have sent me the wrong script.”

“You told me to come early.”

To sound more polite, remove the “you” so that you don’t sound like you’re reprimanding the person for the mistake. Instead, focus on “I”. You want to try to make the person understand the situation that you are facing because of the mistake that was made.

“You have made a mistake.”  can be changed to:  “I believe a mistake has been made” or “I think there is a mistake here”.

“You have sent me the wrong script.” can be changed to: “I think the script that was sent to me was not the right one” or “The script that was given to me seems to be different”.

“You told me to come early.” can be changed to: “I was told to come early” or “I assumed that I had to come early”.

See what a difference it makes? When you remove “you” and replace it with “I”, it does not make it sound like you are accusing the person of anything. Rather, you make the person see things from your point of view so that they are able to empathise with your situation. From there, they will probably realize their mistake and apologise.


  • Expressing Disagreement

A healthy discussion, especially at work, involves sharing opinions and sometimes disagreeing to the opinions shared. Sometimes we can be afraid of offending the person that we don’t agree with and choose to stay quiet instead. In most cases, disagreeing is a good thing – it challenges a group to think differently and to tackle a problem in a different manner.

But how do we disagree in a way that does not offend the person you’re speaking to? How can we disagree but at the same time encourage further dialogue?

Saying “I disagree” may come across as too direct in a group of colleagues at work. Now, some may not take offence with this, especially if you are close friends with the colleague. It also helps to come up with a reason why you don’t disagree, or what would be a better alternative. This encourages further debate so that you may ultimately come up with a conclusion that benefits all.

Here are a few phrases you can use when you disagree to an opinion shared.

  • Saying you disagree in a polite way.

These examples are more polite, but at the same time firm.

I’m afraid I disagree.

“We need to hire more people for this task.”

“I’m afraid I disagree. If one of us dedicates five hours a day to this, we should be able to finish on time.”

I beg to differ.

“Sarah is not stepping up to the plate.”

“I beg to differ. She recently showed that she was able to complete the project way before schedule.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“The management will definitely agree to this proposal.”

“I’m not so sure about that. We still haven’t got enough data to support its feasibility.”

Here are more examples: “Not necessarily”, “I don’t see it that way”, “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree.”

  • Indirectly saying you disagree.

When you say “but”, “well” or “actually”, it indicates that you want to share a contrasting opinion. It’s an indirect way of saying you don’t agree.

“Yes, but…”

“We must have this presentation finished by tomorrow.”

“Yes, but I think we need more time.”

“Well, in my opinion…”

“We need to lower our prices so that our customers do not churn.”

“Well, in my opinion, we need to focus more on customer service than lowering prices.”

“Actually, I think…”

“This poster would look much more striking if the words were in yellow.”

“Actually, I think yellow would not stand out as much.”

Avoid saying “you are wrong”, negative words such as “no” or even worse, putting down a person’s opinion with “that’s ridiculous”. These will definitely offend the other person and will not help in getting a conclusion to your discussion.


So there you have it - I hope this post has been helpful for you in sounding polite when you're making requests, asking questions or facing a slightly uncomfortable situation. Also, don't forget to sign up to our free email course, Speaking with Confidence, to get 7 tips sent to your inbox!

Leave us a comment below on how you're going to change the way you speak to sound more polite!

Photo by MARK ADRIANE on Unsplash

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