5 Ways to Say Everything Better

There's a right way to say no, apologize, and say thank you. Learn the social cues to get through your next awkward situation

Everyone knows someone who seems to have cue cards to life: She can go to a party without knowing a soul and leave with five new friends (meanwhile, your typical MO is to camp out by the bar trying to look busy), effortlessly defuse a tense situation at work, or deliver a criticism without bruising egos. And that kind of social confidence can translate into more career success, stronger social networks, and less anxiety.

The good news? You can teach yourself to have the right words at the tip of your tongue too. Here are go-to talking points you need to handle any situation. (And for more career advice, check out 3 Ways to Be a Better Leader.)

The Perfect Apology



The top mistake people make when apologizing is focusing on the reasons for their bad behavior, says positive psychology coach Lynda Wallace, author of A Short Course in Happiness. (Think: "Sorry I'm late! The traffic was terrible.") While you do this to show that you didn't intend to hurt your friend, it sounds as though you're trying to justify your actions, which puts her on the defensive. Instead, focus on the impact of your behavior, justified or not: "I'm sorry I'm late. I know you're busy, and you must be really frustrated with me. Next time I'll leave earlier." This shows genuine concern and sincerity, says Wallace, increasing the chances that the recipient will forgive you fast.

The Perfect No



First things first, says Wallace: "Don't say ‘yes' just to avoid the discomfort of saying ‘no.' It's not worth it!" Sounds obvious, but women tend to be people-pleasers, which makes declining anything a struggle.

To make saying no easier on you (and the person you're turning down), Bill Lampton, Ph.D., president of Championship Communication in Atlanta, GA, suggests emphasizing the positive. Explain how your "no" will end up benefiting the person you asked you. So you might say, "I can't help you make brownies for your bake sale. I'm so pressed for time, whatever I managed to whip up would probably be inedible anyway!" Or offer something you can do instead, like making a poster for the bake sale or promising to swing by and buy a few treats. Ending on a positive relieves your guilt over saying no and ensures the person you refuse harbors no ill will, either.

The Perfect Critique



To offer a constructive criticism without stepping on anyone's toes, work under the assumption that the person you're speaking to had good intentions, says Wallace. Supposing up front that his harmful actions were unintentional automatically encourages you to choose less confrontational words. So rather than saying, "You haven't emptied the dishwasher in days. I'm not your maid!" you're more likely to point out, "Ever since you started working out in the mornings, you haven't had time to empty the dishwasher before leaving for work. How can we get back on track?"

Also remember the magic ratio, says Wallace. The best relationships tend to stick to a 5:1 balance of positive feedback to critiques; aim to keep the balance in your favor.

The Perfect Request



Women often fear that asking others for help will reflect badly on them or present an imposition. But nothing could be further from the truth, says Wallace. "We feel good when we can help friends, so give your friends the opportunity to help you!" Still, for bigger favors, giving your would-be helper a loophole she can use if she wants to can take some of the pressure off your request, says Wallace. After asking a friend if she can be the fourth person on your relay race team, for instance, Wallace suggests following up with, "I appreciate that you're the kind of friend I can ask this of, but I want you to know that our friendship is more important to me than this favor. So please say no if you don't want to."

The Perfect Thank You



Any demonstration of gratitude is probably going to be well received. But there are ways to maximize the power of thanks. First, offer it immediately or very soon after the precipitating event, or it may seem like an afterthought, says Bill. So if your friend watches your dog while you're away, say thanks right after she offers to help and within 24 hours of returning. Do it in person if you can and, if it's appropriate, touch the recipient on the arm as you thank her. Physical touch prompts your body to release oxytocin, a hormone that brings on feelings of love and connection. Finish by offering to reciprocate. An example: "Thank you so much for taking care of Rover while I was away." (Squeeze arm.) "Let me know if I can lend you a hand the next time you take a trip."

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