Book signing

* Patti Breitman will be at Cody’s, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, at 7:30 p.m. June 15. Details: 510-845-7852.

Patti Breitman could have taught Nancy Reagan a few things.

The former first lady’s anti-drug campaign did recognize the power to “just say no.” Still, a downright denial can be messy, even perilous if not done with skill.

Fairfax literary agent Breitman and co-author Connie Hatch’s newest book, “How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty,” offers up a “no” for almost every conceivable situation. Indeed, it goes far beyond the simple nay, with scripted responses on refusing a mooch, declining a second date, passing on overwork and Breitman’s favorite chapter saying “no” to High-Maintenance People (HMP).

That section even gives tips for coping when the HMP is a permanent part of one’s life, such as communicating differently, setting ground rules, creating diversions and “living in the moment.” For example, that Zen-like transcendental approach advises against dreading for two weeks the three days with your demanding mom, and then complaining for another week after. As Breitman explains, “you’re not giving the person airtime in your brain.”

Becoming a “no” person isn’t about weaseling out of commitment, but recognizing what’s truly important, and how to make time for it. The book came about from Breitman’s glib response as to what she did for a living. Admitting to being a literary agent (longtime client and “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” author Richard Carlson of Danville wrote the foreward) is akin to divulging that you’re a doctor or lawyer except that disclosure lures out latent writers instead of hypochondriacs or plaintiffs.

“I started saying very sarcastically, I say “no” for a living.'” The intrigued responses (“Wow, how do you that?” and “Do you have any friends left?”) fascinated her.

“People were so surprised I could say no.'”

That surprise is understandable, considering Breitman positively crackles with energy. “I’ve been called Pollyanna a couple of times,” she admits cheerily. How many literary agents though can send rejection letters to fragile, anxiety-eaten wannabe writers and get thank-you notes in return? She does.

Breitman enlisted New York college pal Hatch to help create the book. The amusing part is that the two actually befriended one another through a series of nos.

“We met through a boyfriend who said no’ to me, and Connie said no’ to him,” Breitman recalls. Back in their days at the State University of New York in Binghamton, Breitman dated a man who picked a bakery on Valentine’s Day as the ill-conceived time and place for a break-up.

“I wasn’t thrilled,” she said, but “it wasn’t a major serious love affair.” Hatch lived with the guy for a while, then she broke up with him. By that time ,the two women had become Scrabble partners, and their friendship has lasted to this day but neither knows what happened to that mutual boyfriend.

“How to Say No” obviously targets women. If the bright yellow jacket and casual purplish-blue font doesn’t give it away, or the advice on how to get out of pulling bridesmaid duty, then the introduction spells it out: “Women, who traditionally take on more responsibility for relationships, seem to have an especially hard time saying no.”

“Mostly it’s because we’re very nice,” Breitman says, although men don’t like saying “no” at work. “Men like to think they can do everything.”

The philosophy of “no,” though, goes beyond merely refusing to commit. “We really wrote the book to tell people to take some time for yourself and get your energy back and do something that’s important to you.”

Breitman swears much of the advice offered was not only extensively researched but laboratory tested.

“We tested our ideas on real people,” mostly through classes conducted through the Learning Annex, Breitman says. For instance, the answers to an unwanted offer of a first date or, stickier still, the second one seemed quite reasonable to the men in the class. “They want to hear the truth if there’s a no’ coming.” (The book, though, does have gentler put-downs like “sorry, you remind me too much of my ex.”)

While disentangling oneself from unsolicited romance can be tricky, the hardest nos happen in the workplace.

“Some people have troubles with bosses,” Breitman says, “some people have trouble saying no’ to people who work for them.” Employees want to prove they’re team players, while bosses want to be encouraging. Outright naysaying and sob stories don’t work here. Instead, negotiation, compromise and solutions have to come into play. “Life is bigger than our jobs, but people forget that,” she observes.

The hardest “no” Breitman ever had to say was to her longtime home in New York, where she had family and her work. She realized she would never leave if she obsessed about what she was leaving behind.

So instead, she thought about the wildflowers and the sidewalks she could stroll on without bumping into surging crowds. Besides, New York would be there for her to return to, if the California lifestyle didn’t suit her.

The strategy has become a philosophy. “Focus on what you’re saying yes’ to, rather than what you’re saying no’ to,” she says. Some aspirations can be as simple as taking a luxurious bath and reading a book.

“We’re not teaching people to change their personality or to become assertive,” Breitman adds. “It’s not about assertiveness. You can really stay your same sweet self.

“An honest no’ is really a gift to somebody.”

Use some of these forceful refusals

Yes, I answered you last night;

No, this morning, sir, I say.

Colors seen by candlelight

Will not look the same by day.

That opening salvo in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Lady’s Yes” elegantly illustrates how a moment can wring a “yes” when a “no” is called for.

While not all of us can pull so poetic a reversal as Browning, we may not have to. To start, authors Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch advise, practice saying no in nonthreatening encounters. To your best friend, say,”No, I don’t want to eat at that restaurant. How about this one?” Or to your family, “No, son, you can’t have more dessert.”

Create a policy. As you know, once a bureaucrat says, “We have a policy,” there’s no getting around it. So, when a moocher approaches, say, “Sorry, I have a policy about not lending money.” It sounds less personal.

Different folks call for different denials. Here are some sample responses:

* Multilevel marketers (the relentless sales teamfor cleaning supplies or vitamins who are constantly recruiting members for their sales cult). “I don’t like selling. If I did, I would have gone into sales as my profession and probably made a lot more money! I simply have no interest in either selling the products or enlisting other people to sell them.”

* The Boss with the unrealistic project deadline. “This project looks really interesting, and I’d love to work on it. But there’s no way I’ll be able to do it over the weekend. It’s just not possible. Any chance of getting an extension? Otherwise, I could put aside the Squeako project until early next week and have this for you by Tuesday.”

* The Angry Jerk. “I can’t discuss this with you if you’re going to raise your voice to me or speak to me in that tone. Let’s take a break and talk about this later, when we can speak to each other politely.”

* The Sexual Harrasser. Response: The Raised-Eyebrow Treatment.

Or, act a bit taken aback and say to a third party, “Did he say what I think he said? He didn’t really say that, did he?”

Or: “Would you like to go out of the room and come back in so we can start this conversation over again?”

Or: “I’m surprised that you would ask me such a question. I’m going to do you a favor and pretend I didn’t hear it.”

* The Vague Inviter, whose question, “What are you doing on (this date)?” might mask a request for heavy lifting. “I (think I) have plans. Why?”

* The Bad Inviter, or just when you want time to yourself. Response: “Sounds like a lot of fun! I hope I can get a baby-sitter. I’ll let you know.”

Or: “I wish I could. It sounds terrific. Unfortunately, I have other plans.”

Or: “On another day I would say yes in a minute. But today’s been a rough day, and I need to go home.”

* The Insulter. “Calling me stupid isn’t going to change my mind.”

* The Narcissist. “There’s been a lot going on with me, too, lately, and I’d like to share it with you.”

Or: “I’ve already finished my lunch, and you haven’t touched yours yet. Does this tell us something about who’s doing most of the talking?”

* The Interrupter. “Hold that thought I’m not finished yet.”

* The Hypochondriac. Never ask “How are you?” Distract with upbeat diversions. “Did you catch that new comedy on TV last night? What color are you going to paint your bedroom?

Or: “I’m sorry about that pain in your side, but as I’ve already said, I have no idea what it could be. Since I’m not a doctor, it would be pointless for me to speculate, and I don’t think you should, either. If you’re really concerned about it, call your internist. Why don’t you make the appointment right now?”

* The Unwanted Date. “I don’t want to take our friendship in that direction.”

Or (the Policy): “I don’t date guys from work/who aren’t my religion/who used to be married to my mother.”

Or: “It would never work.” (Why) “It just wouldn’t. I know.” (But why?) “I have a strong feeling about it.”

Or: “No, you remind me too much of my ex.”