...pitching in for a gift for a coworker you don't know well or don't like:
1. "I don't think our relationship has reached the gifting stage."
...the extra task your boss "asks" you to take on: 2. Let her know that if you do what she's asking, something's gotta give: "I'm working on projects X, Y, and Z right now-which one should I put aside to make room in my schedule?" Even if she doesn't take the bait and reconsider, you've done your best to keep your workload manageable.
3. Pass the buck: "Really? I would have thought Sally's ____ [insert: talents, skills, experience, current projects] were a better fit."
...your boss's bad idea:
4. Buy in briefly ("That's so interesting..."), then remind her of one of her better brainstorms ("I just wish we were going ahead with your earlier thought; that was such a great idea!").
5. Deliberately misunderstand, while describing your own, better plan ("You mean...? That's brilliant!").
...your underling's bad idea:
6. Be noncommittal in a supportive-sounding way ("Hmm, I hadn't thought of that!"), then steer her back on track ("And it actually gives me another idea...").
...the person who's always tapping on your office door, saying, "May I come in?"
7. "Sorry, this is a bad time."
...an invitation to a work-related social event (when you suspect the higher-ups are taking attendance):
8. R.S.V.P. immediately, conveying both your delight at the occasion ("This sounds great!") and your dismay that you'll have to miss it ("Unfortunately, I have something else scheduled that night").
...the person whose request for your professional advice or access to your Rolodex feels like an imposition:
9. "Nothing/no one comes to mind right now, but if I think of anything/anyone that might be useful, I'll let you know."
Penny Wrenn is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, Essence, and Redbook.