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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: If at first you don't succeed...

December 1, 2004
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Most of us don’t ask enough questions in the course of our conversations. Yet, asking is the key to learning. By asking for feedback we strengthen relationships by building trust. By asking for someone’s opinion, we show caring and respect. This sets the stage for frank communication. By asking for advice we gain information and boost the other person’s self-esteem. And by asking for support, we increase the chances of actually getting it.

But how should we ask? We can be direct, or nondirect, depending on the situation.

No agenda

What do I mean by nondirective asking? You could say this is “asking without an agenda.” Counselors use the nondirective approach to draw out their clients. They carefully avoid personal judgment or interpretation while listening patiently to their client’s stories. They respect the distinct views of every individual, and they don’t make comparisons or generalizations between the stories of different people.

This line of questioning can be quite useful in obtaining information relevant to developing a safety process — while gaining buy-in at the same time. Here’s how it can work: You ask a coworker for his or her opinion on the best way to set up a safety procedure. You’re being genuine, with no hidden agenda. A frank discussion about possible safety guidelines follows. This leads to a customized protocol. And workers will “buy it” because they had an opportunity to offer input.

Here’s another example: Say you observe an at-risk behavior. Telling someone they are not following safety guidelines can feel insulting and put people on the defensive. Will they feel responsible and self-motivated for the long run? I doubt it.

Taking the nondirective approach, you could note that certain personal protective equipment is not being used, and ask, “In your opinion, why is that PPE unpopular?” Or, “What can I do to facilitate the use of that PPE?”

Assume there are legitimate barriers to the safe behavior you want to see, and there are ways to remove at least some of these barriers. Who knows better how to address this problem than the workers themselves?

Also, believe that most of the workforce wants to help prevent personal injury. With these reasonable assumptions, nondirective asking seems to be a most sensible way to discuss an at-risk behavior.

To the point

Sometimes we need to be more direct in asking for something. We might need to ask for specific safety resources, personnel assistance, or opportunities for professional development.

But many of us would rather not ask for help, or whatever it is we need. Maybe we think it’s a sign of weakness, or stupidity. Maybe we fear rejection. These are irrational excuses, really, nothing more. Asking is key to acquiring knowledge and building competence. People who ask for feedback or support are trying to be the best they can be.

The second excuse for avoiding asking reminds me of a story I heard about Dr. Albert Ellis, the renowned clinical psychologist who developed the popular and effective cognitive therapy entitled Rational Emotive Therapy (RET). Specifically, Dr. Ellis has reported that as a college student he never had difficulty getting dates, unlike his more handsome friends. Why? Because he simply asked many more girls for a date than did his friends. Why? Because he didn’t fear rejection.

You see, Dr. Ellis did not entertain the notion that “Everyone must like me.” Rejection is normal and to be expected. So keep asking for what you want, and eventually your request will be honored. Of course, you can help get what you want by knowing how to ask.

Follow these suggestions:

Drop the act of over-competence. No one is perfect, and everyone can improve. So whether you’re asking for feedback or support, show a willingness to be vulnerable. Sure, you’re good at what you do. But, you could do more with the kind of support you’re asking for. Speak from your heart with genuine desire to make a bigger difference.

When you ask for support be ready to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” People are more likely to honor your request when they see possible benefits coming their way.

You might not be able to estimate the ROI (or return-on-investment), but you can certainly explore possibilities. What long-term consequence could be gained from an investment in certain support?

Also, realize people are motivated by more than money. As a teacher, for example, I’m persuaded to offer extra support for students when I believe the effort will enable them to become more competent contributors to humanity.

Don’t be impulsive. Consider the costs and benefits for the support you need. Be confident the positives outweigh the negatives. Your challenge is to sell this view to the person whose support you need.

So while you’re humble, you’re also convinced the support is advantageous from both a personal and organizational perspective.

Keep your request simple. Be direct. Time is precious for all of us, of course. Specify what you want and when. Then, explain clearly why you want it, in terms of both short and long-term positive consequences.

List the benefits as definitively as possible. Then listen attentively and patiently for a response. Wait for a complete reaction before mounting a defense, if needed. Usually, you’ll only get questions, which you can answer precisely and concisely because you anticipated them and prepared answers beforehand.

When the reaction is disappointing, resist the urge to argue — unless this is a last-resort request and the support is necessarily now or never. But even under these circumstances, you need to sustain a congenial atmosphere if you have any hope of reversing the decision.

If the support you request can be delayed, ask for an opportunity to revisit your request at a later date. You’re trying to get around a flat-out “no” to your request. Remember, the more often a person says “no” to a request, the more difficult it is for this person to say “yes” at some later point. This is especially true if your exchange becomes confrontational. It’s important, but not easy, to remain as friendly and cordial as possible in the face of a disheartening decision.

If at first you don’t succeed in asking for support, assess what happened. Perhaps you became aware of costs you hadn’t anticipated and benefits you exaggerated, at least in the eyes of the person who must honor your request. So now you have an opportunity to re-group and ask again. At least you remained good natured and avoided conflict.

Keep the door open for re-asking, and persist when you know you’re right. Timing is often critical. On another day, you’ll likely make a more powerful request, especially if you consider each of the recommendations offered here.

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