When you’re feeling pulled in 50,000 different directions by your boss, your family, your friends, social commitments, etc., chances are it's time to learn how to say no.

You probably think this is easier said than done. Saying yes is the only way to avoid confrontation, isn’t it? Well... not necessarily. When I turned to experts on the art of diplomacy for advice, I learned that there are tactics that can be used in any scenario that will help me get what I want -- without burning bridges. The secret weapon? "You are never more brilliant than the moment you walk away from a conversation," says Debbie Goldstein, a principal at Triad Consulting and faculty member at the Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation.

Here’s how to put your own needs first -- without pissing off everyone you know.

Good: When you wish you could say yes, meet 'em halfway

Picture this: You’re being begged to make 150 cupcakes for a fundraiser bake sale at the last minute. Your heart wants to say yes, but your head knows that you can’t shop, bake and package said tasty goods in time. Bottom line: Even if you want to channel your inner Sandra Lee, if you accept, you’re more likely to run out of time and end up bringing a few cartons of Sara Lee

Don't walk away just yet. Instead, consider this strategy, courtesy of negotiation advisor William Ury, bestselling author of The Power of a Positive No and Getting to Yes. "Brainstorm possibilities and invent options for mutual gain," he says.

In other words, find the middle ground by offering to contribute something you can provide in the time given, such as easy-to-make lemonade. The key is proposing an alternative in a manner that will convince the other person to say yes to you. "Begin with a yes and end with a yes, with the no sandwiched in between," advises Ury. In the case of the cupcake conundrum, for example, you could say this: "I’m happy to help. Because of a prior commitment, I won’t be able to bake cupcakes, but I would be delighted to make some lemonade. How much would you like me to make?"

Better: When you can't give a flat-out no, negotiate 

Your boss has requested that you work all weekend. Or, your extremely high-maintenance cousin just tapped you to be her maid of honor. How the heck are you supposed to get out of doing something you dread if saying no will cause serious fallout? 

Goldstein says that, in order for you to safely escape the commitment, your response should have four key components. To get out of any invitation unscathed:

  1. Be clear that the original request isn’t feasible.
  2. Explain why it isn’t possible.
  3. Offer multiple "yes-able" options.
  4. Give the other person the autonomy to choose among the various options.

Even when it’s your boss you’re letting down, the same principles apply. "You just need to be a bit more nuanced in your language," says Goldstein.

Best: When you feel exploited, put your foot down 

Say your BFF wants a baby shower. And you agree to host it. But then the demands -- from the ever-changing menu to the ever-growing guest list -- start to get out of hand, and now you feel taken advantage of. You need to say no, but how? The last thing you want to do is hurt your friend's feelings or mar your long-term relationship.

First, separate the person from the problem, advises Ury. To react is natural when you feel exploited, but it will hurt your cause. "The first challenge in negotiation is to disentangle the people from the problem," he says. "Be soft on the person, hard on the problem."

Step away until you’ve regained your cool; giving yourself distance will keep you from reacting in anger. Then, clearly and respectfully decline. Let your friend know that you aren’t accusing her of putting you out on purpose. Say something like, "I’m sure this is not what you have intended, but I feel like I’m doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and I’m wondering if we can talk about how to make this satisfying for the both of us." Win-win.


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