woman approaches her friend and her baby in a parking lot

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The Wall of Busyness Situation

What's going on: You want to score a playdate for your preschooler with another mom. But she's racing across the parking lot toward her car, groceries in tow, her face a wall of concentration.

What not to say: "I'll only take up two minutes of your time?" First off, nothing takes two minutes, as communications coach Bill McGowan points out in his book Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time. Second, you're worth more than two minutes—be it for a playdate or for feedback from your boss as she strides down the hall.

What to say: Marla! "I know we're both juggling crazy schedules, so I'll get right to the point." This allows you to acknowledge that she is busy, while recognizing that you are, too, and to get straight to the point—Can we set up that playdate? Can I get your thoughts on my report? Focusing on eliminating the two-minute preamble and other warm-up sentences like it, writes McGowan, is similar to creating the awareness nutritionists ask their clients to embrace every time there's food present—when they say, "be thoughtful about everything you put in your mouth," only McGowan's suggesting you "be aware of everything coming out of your mouth."

woman standing in front of an open refrigerator

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The Empty Milk Situation

What's going on: You go to grab the milk from the fridge and see it's empty, save for one measly swig. Worse, you remember seeing your husband drinking straight from the container a few days ago.

What not to say: "You drank the milk and stuck it back in the fridge! Seriously?"

What to say: "Crap. There's no milk. I'll pick some up on my way home." What this does is allow you to vent about the situation (which is what you're most upset about) and not the person who may (or may not be) to blame, writes psychotherapist Carlo Alasko, PhD, in Say This, Not That: A Foolproof Guide to Effective Interpersonal Communication. This phrase also reminds you that you have the power to fix things; you're not a victim of a dairy disaster.

three young women out for brunch

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The Chicken-in-the-Middle Situation

What's going on: One of your friends is keen on online dating. The other isn't. Over dinner, they begin a 30-minute-long impassioned debate (read: fight) about the pros and cons, ending with a question for you: "What do you think?"

What not to say: "I think...what I really want is more wine." Yes, it's annoying that your pals are arguing, but people fall into discussions (read: fights) about everything from dating to genetically modified food. Evasions—be it a change in subject, a trip to the bathroom or a blank, panicked smile—only make your friends feel not listened to, and you seem wishy-washy.

What to say: "I think online dating works for people who know specifically what they want in a partner and don't feel comfortable talking to strangers. For other people, like me, who prefer serendipity and random chatting, going out to parties can be much better." Whether or not you choose to express your opinion (the "like me" is optional), McGowan explains, you're giving everybody "a partial win"—allowing them to feel good, while putting a polite end to the conversation. The secret requirement: very careful listening...for the duration of the battle.

woman giving a business presentation

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The Everybody's-Looking-at-Me Situation

What's going on: You're about to give a presentation. Gulp.

What not to say: "Good morning, I'd like to spend some time this morning talking about A, B and C." (You're telling the audience what you're going to tell them). Or, "Thank you for having me." (Express gratitude at the end of your speech; it doesn't get people's attention) Or, "So sorry to meet so close to lunch!" (Never apologize. You're here to say something worth paying attention to).

What to say: "Nine out of every 10 women wear the wrong size bra." Or, "Right now we have an unanticipated opportunity to grow our brand to that magical threshold of one billion dollars." This kind of surprising, factual opening is what will entice listeners to want more information—from you.

workplace evaluation gone awry

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The Bad Evaluation Situation

What's going on: You walk into your boss's office for your review and—without any previous warning—she tells you that you're not bringing in enough business and have hurt the bottom line of the company.

What not to say: "I disagree!" (This leads to an argument.) Or, "Thank you for your feedback, I'll try to do better next quarter." (The truth is, you're upset about the news and not grateful for it. Further, you don't know how to do better since you thought you were doing fine.)

What to say: "Wow, that's upsetting to hear." Or, "This is so far from how I see myself—or hope to be seen—that I'm a little speechless. I'd like to explain my perspective, but I first want to make sure that I really understand what you're saying." The goal is to buy yourself some time so that you can listen as your boss explains—in detail—how and why your performance has disappointed. "The better you understand feedback," write Harvard Law School lecturers Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, "the more likely you are to find something in it that is useful, or at the very least to understand the way in which you are being misunderstood, and why."

unwanted advances at the coffee shop

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The Don Juan Situation

What's going on: You're happily scrolling IG at your local coffee shop, when "Kevin" shows up—and asks you (again) to go to the movies.

What not to say: "Well, I'm really busy these days. I...uh, I'm taking care of my sick mother." A fake excuse, writes Alasko in Say This, Not That, is not only bad for you, but also sends the message that you're insecure or nervous, which leads him to think that he can get you to say yes if he just tries a little harder.

What to say: "Thank you, but I'm not available...” If you're married, Dr. Alasko says, you're really not available. And if you're single but just uninterested, he says, you're not available, either—as far as your feelings go.

Leigh Newman is a contributor at Oprah.com and the author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown Up World, One Long Journey Home.