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THE INC. LIFE

How to Turn Someone Important Down, Gracefully

In business, as in life, we have to say no. But saying no to a client, a boss or a co-worker can be tricky. Here’s how to do it with style.

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BY Brenda Barbosa - 01 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In business, as in life, there are plenty of times you have to say no to people. Whether it's to an unruly client, a temperamental boss or a flaky coworker, saying no can sometimes feel like a balancing act requiring equal parts firmness and tact; you certainly don't want to feel like a wet noodle caving in to every request, or burn any bridges along the way. If saying no to a colleague can feel nerve-wracking, imagine the delicate tango one must do in refusing a request from the President and First Lady of the United States?

That's exactly what the Guggenheim Mueum's Nancy Spector, chief art curator to the White House, recently did -- and her emailed response is a case study in genius. Not only was Spector's refusal bold yet classy, it demonstrated a skillful tightrope walk that upheld both her dignity and her convictions.

As reported by The Washington Post, the Guggenheim Museum received a request to borrow a painting --Vincent van Gogh's Landscape with Snow--for Donald and Melania Trump's private living quarters. The museum, however, was unable to accommodate the request because of a conflict in schedule and strict rules surrounding the loan of the piece.

So instead, Spector offered the Trumps an avant-garde work of art from contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan entitled "America", an 18-karat, fully functioning solid gold toilet that the Guggenheim had had on exhibit for a year.

The response created quite a stir, both from the art world who praised Spector's creative wit, and the public who marveled at her spunk. Indeed, no one can accuse Spector of being spineless or dull. Business leaders and professionals can learn a lot from her response. Here are some ways to say no with class.

1. Add a bit of levity.

Turning someone down is never easy, at least not if you care about the relationship. To soften the blow, says best-selling author and humorist Julie Klam, it's helpful not to take things too seriously, especially if the situation doesn't warrant it.

"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," Klam says in this interview.

In Spector's case, her use of humor was effective because it was thoughtfully considered and carefully placed.

2. Highlight the positive.

Some research suggests that people prefer to receive bad news upfront. When the bad news involves a delicate exchange like what Guggenheim officials faced when turning down the Trumps' request, however, using decorum is best.

"Many thanks for your request to the Guggenheim museum to borrow Vincent Van Gogh's Landscape in the Snow for the President and First Lady's private quarters in the White House," Specter's email begins. "We are pleased that they are interested in demonstrating their support for the arts by showcasing treasures from the nation's cultural institutions."

This opening is both positive and classy.

3. Offer an alternative.

Readers know a "but" is coming, but rather than simply responding with a "No, we can't do it" statement, Spector offers the White House an alternative.

"Fortuitously, a marvelous work by the celebrated contemporary Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, is coming off of view today after a year's installation at the Guggenheim, and he would like to offer it to the White House for a long-term loan. It is a solid 18k gold toilet that was installed in one of our public restrooms for all to use in a wonderful act of generosity.

The work beautifully channels the history of the 20th-century avant garde art by referencing Marcel Duchamp's famous urinal of 1917. We would be pleased to help facilitate this loan for the artist should the President and First lady have any interest installing it in the White House."

Spector also included a photo of the golden commode for the White House's reference.

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