THERE is an ancient story that goes as follows:

A father had two sons. He went to the first and said: "Son, go and work in the vineyard today."

His son answered him: "I will not go." But later, he changed his mind and went.

Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing.

The son answered: "I will go, sir." But he did not go.

Which son did the will of his father?

This story encapsulates why saying "no" is one of the most difficult things to do, especially to those whom we value or have a co-dependent relationship with.

Because many people do not know how to communicate a "no" well, they avoid it but are not able to fulfil the commitments they have made.

This is why when it comes to turning down your customers, it becomes one of the most critical arts in your business skill set.

While I was running my courier company in South Africa, the moments of greatest pressure I faced were when I had to decide how to respond to the requests of clients I was deeply trying to impress.

I remember a call from one of my company's most valued clients, a global accounting firm. The firm was in the process of deciding whether or not to outsource an entire aspect of its operations to our company and, to put it frankly, we would have done anything to secure the business.

The woman on the other end of the line asked for an urgent delivery to be made within the next hour. We were understaffed, overworked and simply did not have the capacity to fulfil her request.

But what was hanging in the balance was far more than a one-off delivery. Every interaction we had with the client's staff would either increase or decrease our chances of securing the contract. How could I turn them down?

Everyone has stories of over-committing and under-delivering.

The result is that people often end up trying to worm their way out of difficult situations they should never have found themselves in.

For those who find this a common struggle, the simple two-letter word "no" can become incredibly liberating.

People often struggle to say "no" because much of their own values, self-image and worth are placed in their ability to satisfy other people's requests.

When they have to decline someone, they feel that they are personally responsible to those they have declined, and their self-esteem is affected.

Simply recognising these subconscious pressures can enable you to deal with the emotions of saying "no" and help you deliver clear answers in a non-threatening way.

What you really want is to learn how to say "no" in a way that still gives the customer a great sense of service.

To do that, you must look at various aspects of communicating with people, the verbal and non-verbal cues you send and how to phrase your communication in the most positive way possible.

This is incredibly important, as you may be unaware of the subconscious negative messages that your words can convey.

Eliminate negative language, as well as move from vague to specific, and tentative to definite statements.

The way you pronounce words, the accents, tone and pitch of your sentences convey far more than the words you are saying. In telephone communications, as much as 60 per cent of what is communicated is by tone alone.

Active listening is one of the most overlooked skills in business today.

Most people are born with the ability to hear, but listening properly is a skill that needs to be developed over time. It is one of the simplest ways to communicate excellent service while not necessarily complying with all requests.

Learning the art of successful communication when it comes to saying "no" is a vital skill required by those who are engaging with customers and even internal staff who make demands on people's time and resources.

People who remain focused on their core responsibilities and manage to keep a healthy work-life balance are those who have learnt to say "no" to their customers without offending them.