Friends are the people who are there for you when you need them. Sometimes it can be difficult to define the boundary between being there for someone and being used unfairly. If you don’t speak up as soon as you feel someone is taking advantage of you, the relationship can develop into a pattern which causes you to become angry and resentful, but which you may find very hard to change.

When you decide to protect your personal boundaries, you may feel that you are choosing between being liked and being respected. Everyone loves a pushover who is there to lend a hand, be a stopgap and general gofer. However, if people only like you because of what you do for them, you may want to question your relationship with them.

When you learn to be comfortable saying no, you can make decisions about where you want your boundaries to be. You might find that you lose some of the people who had become accustomed to depending on you to help them meet their own needs and objectives, but you will have healthier relationships with the friends who remain.

In the conversation that follows Teresa stands up to her friend Judy, whom she feels has been taking advantage of her availability to look after the children. The conversation illustrates the point that when you think ahead to a conversation, you are more prepared to handle it when the moment arrives.

‘Hi, Teresa’, said Judy sounding a little breathless. ‘Can I drop off the kids with you this afternoon? I’m sorry to call you at the last minute. I’ve got a lot of shopping to do and the kids hate being dragged around the shops. I hope you don’t mind.’

Instinctively, Teresa agreed to help, but as she put the phone down, she felt some resentment. Although they often helped each other out, this was the third time this week that Judy had asked her to look after the children. As Teresa thought about it, she realised that she was looking after Judy’s children two or three days every week. She realised it was her own fault for letting the situation develop, but she resolved that next time Judy called she would speak up. She was missing her time alone with her own children.

Two days later, Judy called early in the morning. ‘Could you take the kids after school today? I need to go and see my aunt; she’s recently moved to an old-age home.’

‘I’m not sure about today,’ Teresa replied. ‘I was looking forward to spending it with the boys. How long will you be?’

‘Well, the retirement home is down town, so I guess I’ll be gone most of the afternoon.’

‘Yes, that is quite a distance away,’ Teresa said. ‘Judy, I’ve already made plans with the boys today. I don’t want to change them, so I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to help you out. I hope you can make another plan.’

‘Oh!’ Judy sounded surprised. Clearly she had been expecting Teresa to be available, as she usually was. ‘Well, okay then’ she said. ‘Not to worry. I’ll sort something out.’

Straight Talk tips on this conversation

Saying no is often easier than you think it’s going to be. This is a low-key conversation for Teresa, because she’d recognised the need for it and so was prepared for Judy’s call.

Notice that Teresa makes sure she understands exactly what Judy wants from her by asking how long she will be away. Often we commit to doing something for someone before we fully understanding what we are getting into.

Teresa is honest about her reason for not being able to helpJudy and explains her plans without going into extensive apologies or excuses. It’s sometimes tempting to create excuses for saying no, but it’s better to be honest. When you tell the truth there is no danger that you will give inconsistent stories or be caught out in a lie.

Judy’s surprise indicates that in future she may think twice before imposing on Teresa.

Having said no to Judy on this occasion, Teresa will find it easier to do so in future, and Judy will be less likely to take her for granted.

This conversation is adapted from material in Straight Talk: how to manage conversations that scare you, published by Struik, 2011. For more information visit www.straight-talk.co.za

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