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(8) Pearls of Life

 Dreams of Peace

PL8

Say What You Mean

I once heard someone offer an under-assertive friend a favor and the friend said no in such a roundabout fashion that the person actually thought she’d said yes, and did it anyway. The friend was annoyed at them doing the opposite of what she’d said-having simply not realized how obtuse they had been. Here’s how the conversation went.

Let’s call them Sam and Ali: Sam: “I’m just taking Jess down to the park to Play on the swings. I could take Hester along if that’s OK with you?” Ali: “Well, that’s a very kind offer. You know, I’m funny about it. I always think I should keep an eye on her myself. But I’m sure I’m being silly. I mean, what’s going to happen? I know it ought to be fine.”

Ali meant no, but Sam heard yes. Ali could have simply said no, but she was worried that this would seem like a rude rejection of Sam’s offer, so she wriggled around trying to justify it so much that she didn’t actually say no at all. In the event, Ali disappeared into the kitchen for five minutes, and when she came back she panicked because she couldn’t see Hester anywhere. I told her Sam had taken Hester and Jess to the park. Ali was appalled that Sam would do that when she’d said no. But neither Sam nor I had heard her say no. So there’s a little moral tale for you.6 If you’re one of those people who hates saying no outright, get over it.

You can still explain your choice if you feel the need, but make sure you say no unequivocally at the start.

 Think Before You Speak

Maybe you’re not under-assertive. Perhaps you know that far from pussyfooting around, you can come across as being a little brusque. Maybe it’s your choice of words, or maybe it’s just your manner. Or both. Are you the type to call a spade a spade, or do you intend to be polite and it sometimes just comes out wrong? Either way, you must have noticed that it doesn’t help you get what you want from people. If someone is going to say yes to you, you want to make it as easy as possible for him. In fact you want to make it hard to say no. You want to make them like and respect you so that they want to support you, and to express your request in such a way that it would seem churlish to refuse.

So if you have anything to say that might cause offense or upset someone, catch yourself before you start the conversation and remind yourself not to be personal or to place blame, and to concentrate on the situation and not on the people. And promise yourself, if necessary, that after you’ve made your point, you’ll shut up.

This is a wise rule if you’re going to ask for something, but this book is primarily about getting what you want without having to ask. So I’m not talking only about direct requests-I’m talking about all your dealings with people whom you want to be well-disposed toward you. If you unintentionally make your colleague feel small at this week’s

meeting, he’s much less likely to offer to help you out next week when your workload gets heavy. If you sound irritable when your neighbor asks you to babysit, they’re less likely to offer to hold the fort so you can go out.

Be Prepared to Disagree

Sometimes you have to say when you think someone is wrong. This is about earning respect. (And people are more likely to say yes to people they respect-aren’t you?) If you can argue a case clearly and without malice, people will have time for you and will want to listen to your views in the future because you clearly express your own thoughts rather than parroting what you think they want to hear.

It’s also about being on the right side. Sometimes you actually believe that someone is arguing for a course of action that you consider morally or ethically unacceptable, and when that happens you have to say so. Suppose there’s a case of pilfering in the office and everyone is giving Ella the cold shoulder because they think she’s the culprit. But you can see their evidence is purely circumstantial, and you’re concerned that they’re mistreating Ella. You can’t keep quiet about it-you have to disagree with their stance.

Anyone reasonable should welcome disagreement so long as it’s expressed in the right way. Yes, I know there are always a few people who aren’t reasonable, but at least you can make sure you’ve done your best, and anyone listening will think better of you for it. The key to disagreeing nicely is to disagree with what the person is saying, and not with the person herself. I know this sounds like a technicality, but it makes a lot of difference to how the other person responds.

You want to avoid direct criticism of the person, so don’t say things like, “No!” or “You’re wrong” or “You’ve got the wrong end of the stick there.” Aim to comment on what she’s said, and express it as an opinion, however firm an opinion: “I don’t think that’s the way it works,” or “I’m pretty certain we’ll go adrift if we do that.” You see? You’re concentrating on their line of reasoning, not on them.

Control Yourself

What is it that makes some people more difficult to deal with than others? I’ll tell you, and you’ll realize you already knew it really. The thing that gets in the way of making all interactions straightforward is emotion. Negative emotion to be specific. And the more extreme the emotion, the more it gets in the way. When the person you’re dealing with is angry, upset, nervous, hurt, disappointed, touchy, stressed, frustrated, resentful, anxious-that’s when it’s hardest to get the result you want.

And guess what makes things twice as tricky? Yep, that’s right: when both of you are emotional. Two upset, angry, resentful, worried people will double your problems, if not worse. So the first thing you can do to ease those emotionally charged conversations is to make sure that you have your own emotions under control. Look, I’m not talking about whether your feelings are justified here, I’m just talking about how to actually get the result you want.

Of course I know that isn’t always easy, but stay focused on what you want to achieve and recognize that keeping calm is the best way to achieve it, and that should help you to keep a lid on it. If you really can’t stay cool, just walk away until you can trust yourself with the conversation. There are plenty of ways to deal with other people’s emotions, but you’ll struggle to manage any of them until you have your own under control.

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