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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Strategies That'll Help You Get Through a Tough Conversation Without Backing Down

Have you ever gone into a tricky conversation with someone at work, determined to stick to your guns and make sure things go your way—only to leave that same conversation having promised away your weekends, sanity, and shoes?

How did that just happen? you wonder, as you shrink back to your desk to dream up words that rhyme with “backbone.”

So, to help you out the next time someone makes an unreasonable request or pulls you into another equally tough conversation, here are a few pointers on how to remain firm and come out on top.

1. Know Your Deal-Breakers

Before you go into the conversation, you have to know your deal-breakers—the things you absolutely won’t compromise on. For example, giving up the weekend of your kids’ birthday. Working late on date night. Taking the heat for something that didn’t have anything to do with you.

Your deal-breakers will likely stem from your personal values—the things that are ingrained 10,000 feet down inside you; the things that, if you break or devalue them, will end up costing you happiness and self-worth.

These are the things you need to be crystal clear on, so you can confidently say, “Sorry, I can’t do that” when the time comes.

Know your deal-breakers, then honor them.

2. Stay Strong Through the Personal Favor Dilemma

It happens all the time: Your boss asks you to get involved in that new project—the one you already said you didn’t have time to work on—because it would really help him out of a tight spot. Or, you’re asked to take on more responsibility because it would mean so much to the requestor. Or, after resigning, you’re asked to extend your notice period until things calm down a little, because it would make the transition easier for everyone on the team.

This is a tough situation, because if you say no to the personal favor, will your boss see you as someone who’s unreliable or doesn’t have his or her back?

Nobody likes to say no to someone who’s asking for a personal favor—but keep in mind, this is your boss or manager, not your best friend or partner. And this is about work, not helping a friend through a crisis or being there to support a family member dealing with some bad news.

It’s a tough call, but if you’re truly going to stick to your guns, your response should be civil, professional, and absolute. Say that you understand what he or she needs, but due to your existing commitments, you’re not in a position to contribute this time. Say that you wish you could help, but because of your current workload, you wouldn’t be able to do the project justice right now. Or, you may even say that you’re happy to find a way to help out—but only within your existing time constraints or commitments.

3. Make Saying No a Good Thing

You’re allowed to say no to a request that’s unreasonable or downright unfair. The trick is to find a way to reframe it so that by saying no, it’s clear to everyone that you’re doing the right thing.

For instance, if your boss asks you to take on a time-consuming project on top of your existing work, explain that by spreading yourself that thin, you wouldn’t be able to dedicate the necessary time or effort to either set of work. Instead, suggest that it might be worth it to pause the project while the team figures out the best, most efficient way to get the work done.

Or perhaps you’ve been asked to give up some of your personal time to stay late and do additional work. In this case, you could say that you’ll pitch in where you can, but in your experience, working longer hours rarely results in great work. Then suggest looking at a few other approaches to find one that could benefit everyone involved.

In essence, this strategy takes what’s being asked of you and turns it back on the requestor by saying, “Can I help you find a better way?”

4. Know Your Value

Remaining firm in tough conversations is much harder when you think that doing so makes you a bad person: If I turn down that request, I’m being really unhelpful. He’ll hate me if I say no. If I stick to my guns, she’ll think less of me.

Those all sound like reasonable things to think—until you realize that your value isn’t determined by the quantity of requests you say yes to, but by the quality of your work.

Don’t let a need to please others or a lack of confidence drive you to give up what matters. Sometimes, sticking to your guns in tough conversations comes down to one question: What would I do if I had nothing to prove and was already worthy of respect?

Photo of climber courtesy of Shutterstock.