The longer you allow others to assume that you are always available to fit in with their plans and demands, the more difficult it becomes to change your behaviour. You find it more difficult to speak up; the other person finds it more difficult to accept that you are no longer going along with their requests and assumptions.

Faced with a difficult conversation that might end with you being thought of as unhelpful and uncooperative, it often seems easier to stay quiet. In the short term it probably is. But in the longer term your frustration and resentment will eat away at you until one day it explodes, doing more harm than any well planned and well intentioned conversation in which you say‘No’.

In the situation below, Sophie has allowed her manager to assume that she is regularly available for work on Saturdays. In this conversation she resists a request to meet on a Saturday morning because of the commitment she has made to her boyfriend and family. Notice how she gives her reasons for not being available over the weekend calmly and without apology.

When Sophie relocated to the head office of her employer, she planned to get home at least once every month. She missed her boyfriend and time with her family but as she worked to get on top of her new job she had fallen into the habit of spending most of each weekend catching up on mail and planning for the coming week.

Several times previously she and Julie had met on Saturday mornings. This week she had worked late every day to be sure that she could fly home on Friday evening for the weekend.On Thursday afternoon, she was in the middle of an email to her boyfriend, sending him her flight details, when the phone rang.

It was Julie. ‘Listen, Sophie, I need the figures for the executive meeting on Monday morning. We’ll be discussing…’

Sophie listened carefully, making notes as Julie talked. When she finished with ‘So I thought that we could get together early on Saturday, to go through everything’, Sophie checked her notes before replying.

‘Julie, can I check that I’ve got this right? I want to be sure exactly what you need for Monday. I know this meeting is important.’

When Julie confirmed that Sophie had understood her correctly, Sophie took a breath and said, ‘Julie, I’ve booked a flight to go home tomorrow evening. It’s the first weekend I’ll be home in six weeks. I’ve been missing my family and I’m looking forward to seeing them all again.I’ll get all of this to you tomorrow, before the end of the afternoon. My flight is only at six o’clock. But I won’t be able to meet with you on Saturday. I hope you understand. I’ll be available on my cell over the weekend, and we can also talk on Monday morning if you need to.’

There was a pause before Julie spoke. ‘Well, I suppose so,’ she said slowly. ‘I was hoping you’d be around on Saturday, so we could discuss the details. I didn’t expect you’d be going home.’

Sophie stayed silent, resisting the temptation to offer to postpone her flight.

After another pause, Julie continued, ‘I suppose it will do if you get it all to me tomorrow afternoon.’

After the call, Sophie took a deep breath and settled down for a long afternoon’s work. ‘Phew! That was close,’ she thought to herself. ‘Julie seemed happy enough, although I think she expected me to just fold and change my plans. I’m pleased I stood my ground.’

Straight Talk tips on this conversation

- Notice how Sophie checks that she understands exactly what her manager wants and acknowledges what is most urgent.

- She explains her commitment to her family and the plans she has made, concisely and without apology so Julie can understand the basis for her decision to go home that weekend.

- Silence can be very powerful in difficult conversations. Sophie resists pressure from Julie to change her plans by simply being quiet, leaving Julie to accept her decision.

- Sophie softens her refusal to come to a Saturday morning meeting by offering to be available on the phone over the weekend. Often saying no to a plan that would only suit one person can become a negotiation to find an outcome that suits both parties.

This conversation is adapted from material in Straight Talk: how to manage conversations that scare you, published by Struik, 2011. Click here for more information.

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