Every day, we have to say no to people. Yet turning folks down never seems to get any easier, even if all we’re declining is a simple movie invitation. Here, five experts share their best outs.

By Ashley Tate and Amy Chen
Updated January 22, 2013
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Illustration of a woman holding a red balloon in front of a traffic light
Credit: Shout

1. Crack a Joke

When I have to turn someone down, I find that humor defuses a potentially awkward situation and diverts the conversation away from the rejection, whether it’s small or serious. When a good friend recently asked me to take her shift at the school book fair, I said that I would love to but that I already had a hair appointment—and, hey, wouldn’t my new buttery highlights help the kids much more than books would? She laughed and dropped the subject. It never hurts to make someone smile, especially when you need to deliver disappointing news.

Julie Klam is the author of Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without ($26, amazon.com). She lives in New York City.

2. Don’t Overestimate Your Importance

While colleagues and friends value your company, it will not be the end of the world for them if you forgo an invitation. People who have a hard time declining others often exaggerate the impact their rejection will have on the other person. Then when they manage to say no, they divulge their guilty feelings or act like they’re intensely burdened by their own response—which succeeds only in making a spurned pal more uneasy. Remind yourself that you’re not ruining anyone’s day by taking care of your own needs and that even if others are disappointed, they’ll probably get over it quickly.

Darcy Lockman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in New York City. She is the author of Brooklyn Zoo: The Education of a Psychotherapist ($27, amazon.com).

3. Offer Praise

Negative comments aren’t helpful, so when I’m turning a person down for an acting job, I emphasize something besides bad news. I start by explaining why the actor is not the right fit for the particular role. Then I follow that up with something positive, such as complimenting his strong vocal ability. If actors can bare their souls in auditions, then I think I can give them the same respect in return—even if they don’t get cast.

Bernard Telsey is the president of Telsey + Company, a casting company in New York City. He has helped assemble casts for such movies as Sex and the City 1 and 2, the television shows Smash and The Big C, and Broadway productions, such as Wicked, Hairspray, Rent, and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

4. Fudge

It’s OK to tell little white lies to soften the blow of a rejection, especially a romantic one. There’s no need to share the reasons why you’re dumping someone (for example, you’re interested in the guy in accounting), how easy this decision was for you (it should always be very, very hard), or what you really think of his personality. That said, you want to be clear that you’re not interested. The human heart has a remarkable capacity for convincing the brain that there is, in fact, a chance of a snowball in hell. So say that there’s a lack of chemistry. That line is truthful yet generic enough not to sting too badly.

Em & Lo are the New York area–based authors of several books, including, most recently, 150 Shades of Play ($13, amazon.com). They also blog daily about relationships at EMandLO.com.

5. Act Now

When writers pitch me a book idea that I’m not interested in, I respond at the first available opportunity. This gives them the option to reach out to someone else who might be a better fit. You should do the same when you say no to a client, a friend, or even a date. If you receive a casual invitation (like going to dinner) and you know that you don’t want to attend, reject it immediately. If you’re asked to do something that warrants longer consideration (like hosting a baby shower), tell the person that you need to think about it. But as soon as you decide to pass, say, “I’ve given your request a lot of thought and I’m honored that you asked, but I don’t think I’m the right person.”

Julie Barer is a New York City–based literary agent and the owner of Barer Literary.