Not now

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Ethiopia is a society in which personal relationships and social obligations are very important. Ignoring the basics of one of the most important values of society means risking isolation from that same society and being ignored when we need support from that system ourselves. So, what we see typically happen is that while Negussie (no one I refer to in particular) is pressed to complete his monthly report, he drops his work instantly when a relative or friend calls him up and asks for one favour or the other. He will attend to his friend first and worry about completing his work later, perhaps in the evening or over the weekend. If he doesn’t get another call in the meantime, that is. Another day, Negussie may be leaving his office to attend an important meeting somewhere else in town and just when he is about to enter his car, somebody comes to visit him unannounced and Negussie politely attends to his visitor and as a result arrives far too late for that important meeting. Like Negussie, most of us find it extremely difficult to turn people away and disappoint them and so we attend to them in an unplanned way. Asking the other person to come back another time or to make an appointment with the secretary doesn’t even come to our mind. I have tried hard myself over the past years to empower my secretaries to have visitors make an appointment instead of just popping in unannounced, but they got insulted by the visitors instead. Nobody expects to be turned away. The magic phrase has become that “He is in a meeting”. Being in a meeting seems to impress everybody and must be very important indeed. So much abused is this excuse that while accepted, nobody actually believes it anymore. Another example of us finding it so difficult to say “no” to other people is the mobile telephone, which has become the weapon of choice of the intruder. We just cannot resist answering it, even while we are in the middle of doing something very important or attending the meeting mentioned above, where we arrived too late in the first place, remember? And as a visitor to an office it may happen that the telephone rings while you are being attended to.  Chances are that the caller would be given precedence over your personal visit.
Procrastination is the second reason I mentioned above for us finding it difficult to say “no”.  While knowing very well that something needs to be done, we often find ourselves delaying. Perhaps because we don’t like to do that particular activity, or we may feel uncertain about our capacity to do it. There may be other reasons as well, but the result is that what needs to be done is left undone. Instead we look for other less important but perhaps more urgent issues to attend to and push the agenda forward. “I will do it tomorrow or next week or when the car is repaired or when the weather gets better or … never.”
Finally, not knowing what our real priorities are is a very common reason for us not being able to say “no”. Simply because we don’t know what to say “yes” to, we say “yes” to all that comes our way and are busy being busy. Like Negussie, Kidest is also pressed to meet a deadline and complete a large order for an important client. She is called to a meeting though. Not that she had planned to attend this meeting, but she has been asked to replace Negussie, who is busy attending to a private matter with a friend. She doesn’t really know the agenda, neither is she informed about Seyoum’s position on the matters to be discussed. But she finds herself going to the meeting because meetings are very important, remember? As a result, she now attends the meeting absent minded, thinking about how to complete that order for her important client. She has not much to contribute to the meeting and she only completes the quota required for the meeting. Should she have said no? Probably. Could she have said no? Perhaps, if she had made up her mind about what was the most important thing to do. Perhaps not, if she found it difficult to say “no” to Negussie who is a good friend and colleague after all.
Not being able to say “no” hinders us thus to achieve results. Negussie misses important meetings while Kidest fails to satisfy her clients. Needless interruptions, unimportant meetings, some phone calls, some email and other people’s problems are examples of issues that may come our way and that we need to learn to say “no” to if we want to be more effective in achieving what needs to be done. And to be able to say “no” we need to know what our priorities are.

Ton Haverkort
PS. The names used in this article refer to no one in particular.