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All About You: Learning to say ‘no’

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

Are you too busy? Does your to-do list seem to never end? When you finish one project, are three more put on your plate? Although better time management may help, sometimes the reason a person has too much to do is because they don’t say “no” enough – or at all!

Saying no can be difficult, especially if it’s to someone we like or love. If a friend asks you to help them move, saying no may make you (and your friend) feel like you don’t have a very strong friendship. And even if you have a good reason to say no, it still isn’t pleasant to tell someone you can’t help them.

I don’t like saying no – even to a stranger. But I’ve learned that knowing how and when to tactfully say no can save a lot of stress.

Why is it harder to say no than yes? There are two main reasons. One is that negative events make a greater impact on our brain than positive ones. The second reason is what psychiatrists call “harshness bias” – we tend to think people will judge us more severely than they do.

There are times you can’t say no, such as when your boss asks you to conduct an inspection or check a jobsite. However, in situations in which you have a choice, several tactics are available that may help reduce your workload.

Don’t say yes right away

During my “Attack Stress at Work” seminar, I start my “Just Say No” section by asking someone, “Would you mind doing a favor for me?” Invariably I get “sure” or some other “I’ll do it” response. To date, nobody has asked “what is the favor?”

Then I ask the person to do something ridiculous, like get up on a table and dance for everyone. (The person’s response is always funny.) Once you say yes in any form, you’ve made it more difficult to say no. Not only do you have to say no, but you also must reverse something you’ve already agreed to do.

The next time someone asks you to do a favor for them, ask what the favor is. Similarly, if someone wants to know if you’re busy this weekend, ask them why they want to know.

Take time to think about it

Once you know what the favor is, you can make an informed decision that you’re less likely to regret. If it’s a small favor and you’re sure you wouldn’t mind doing it, say yes. If it’s a larger request, give yourself at least some private time to think it over. (If the person making the request is there with you, it’ll be harder to gauge your true feelings.) Your answer may still be yes, but it won’t be a reflex response.

Give ‘half a no’

When I was a safety coordinator, a supervisor named Jim worked in the maintenance department. Every month a different supervisor in the department was required to conduct a safety meeting. Jim had severe stage fright. When his turn came around, he asked me if I would give the safety meeting for him. I couldn’t: If I did, every supervisor on the site would suddenly get stage fright and I’d have to conduct all the meetings!

I gave Jim half a no by telling him I would make up a package of activities. He had to make copies and facilitate the activities that didn’t require him to talk in front of the group, and I didn’t have to be there. Jim’s supervisor agreed to start off the meeting and explain the activities. It not only worked out for Jim, but it gave me an idea for a safety-meeting product that I sold for several years. If you can, give someone “half a no.” It’s likely you’ll both end up satisfied.

Saying no may not be easy, but it’s something today’s busy safety and health professional should know how to do. So, I’d like to end this month’s column by asking a question: Would you mind doing a favor for me?!”

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Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit

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