1 "Actually, I would."
..."You know what I mean?"
2 "Actually, I don't."
3 "There's an idea!"
...the person you've said yes to in the past:
4 Steer clear of the "three-A trap" (accommodating, attacking, avoiding), says William Ury, PhD, author of The Power of a Positive No. Instead, park your no between two yeses. His "Yes! No. Yes?" sandwich:
Yes! (as in, yes to your gut feeling that the right answer is no): "I know I've agreed to ________ in the past, but it only made me feel anxious/uncomfortable/overwhelmed. That's why it's important for me to now say no."
No (the simple, matter-of-fact bottom line): "I'm no longer willing to ________."
Yes? (the positive endnote): "What if we try ________ instead?"
Ury advises coming equipped with an "anchor phrase" that will help you stand your ground. Consider "That doesn't work for me," "I prefer not to," "I'm no longer willing to do that"-and repeat your phrase as needed, knowing you needn't say more.
...the person to whom you've said maybe:
5 Ury says, "A quick no is better than a slow maybe." So when you finally do respond-by saying, "I've given it some thought, and my answer is no"-expect the other person's disappointment. And next time you're tempted to say maybe, say this instead: "If you need to know now, the answer is no."
...the person you've been avoiding because you dread saying no:
6 It's been, what, three months now? Time to bite the bullet and say the inevitable: "I know I've been out of touch, but I did get your phone call/e-mail/proposal. I'm going to say no, and I hope my delay in getting back to you hasn't caused you an inconvenience." Kind of painful, isn't it? This is why Ury avoids avoidance.
...someone else's no:
7 If you can't take no for an answer, Ury, who is also an internationally appointed mediator and the author of Getting Past No, says the key is negotiation. First, ask: "Can you help me understand why it's difficult for you to say yes to the proposal/loan/offer/promotion?" Next, assess: "As I hear you, your first concern is A and your second concern is B-have I got that right?" Then, answer: "If I were able to address your concerns by doing X and Y, would you be more amenable?" Just keep in mind that a yes isn't guaranteed, and you might need to repeat the steps a few times before you even get close.
Penny Wrenn is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, Essence, and Redbook.