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Just say “negative”
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 10/18/2010

No sign NEGATIVE – neg’ . a . tiv – a denial of permission, a refusal, a veto.

Her voice on the telephone sounded defeated and beleaguered. Although I could not see her face, I knew that her eyes would reveal a quite desperation. And she was trapped by her sharing spirit, helpless in the grip of her own inclination to be a helper.

“I wish someone would just teach me how to say ‘no’,” is what she said. These were the words of a very active person who simply added one too many volunteer activities to her already full plate.

I said to her, “One of the most common words used at work is no. Would you like me to teach you how to be more assertive in relaying that sentiment?”

“Yes, please,” she said with enthusiasm.

“Well, you failed your first test. You did not say ‘no’,” I replied playfully.

Talking about denying a request makes me think deeper about the nature of the word ‘no’. It is so much more than a monosyllabic refutation. The word carries a variety of psychological and physical reactions. Sometimes we become tense when we are told no, especially if we anticipate approval. Our outlook for the remainder of the day can be seriously altered by a denial of authorization.

Everyone can relate to tales of persistent sales people. Their livelihood depends on changing a no to a yes. On the job, all of us can remember someone who would not take no for an answer. Even if policy, procedure, and precedence were on your side, the person persistently sought to deny the denial.

Still others may take offense at the word, seeing it as a personal affront. It is fairly common for grudges, grievances and lawsuits to spring from a valid denial. At times, the shadow cast by that simple word can be very long indeed.

There are many ways to say no. I believe that a very effect manner to do so is to clearly speak the word negative. There seems to be no ambiguity about anything when it is put that way. And that can be very helpful when an unwavering inquisitor approaches you on the job.

I have found, however, that it conjures strange looks and attitudes when used in common conversations outside of work. If you bark out a brisk negative when asked if you want another piece of cake, you may find that you have offended the host. The word negative can sound too assertive, officious, and off-putting. Thus, we have yet another reason to avoid blurring the distinction between work and home life.

Let us look at the variety of conditions that may warrant the answer no while we are at work.

Mandated – Some requests should be denied without question. If an offender asks to borrow your keys, a firm no should follow, as well as a subsequent call to the Inspector. The same is true if an offender asks for you to bring contraband into the facility. There is no guesswork in requests such as these.

Discretionary – Shads of gray enter into the equation at times. If a prisoner misses yard due to an interview with staff, the request for a later yard may follow. Flexibility in granting this is contingent on how the unit is run, past dealings with the inmate, and the notion of uniformity. Not all requests should be easily or automatically denied.

Delayed - Sometimes the word no may actually mean not right now, but possibly yes. Some issues may be later granted but pending investigation.

For example, imagine that a prisoner wishes to know if he may keep a pen that has a non-clear barrel. He asks this because he heard that it will soon be deemed to be contraband. One would have to check with the policy to determine when this comes into effect.

Or, maybe an inmate asks to talk to the Recreation Director. Before saying no, the staff member would need to consider if this is permitted by posted rule. Heavy prisoner traffic in the recreation building may also be a determining factor. In addition, the Recreation Director may have a strict practice in place to answer written correspondence rather than allow prisoners into his/her office without an appointment.

A delayed refusal is not always relayed in a clear manner. Perhaps the best way to address a request of this nature is to state “not right now, but I will check later to see if this can be done.”

Weak no - No does not always mean no when it is conveyed without confidence. This is different from a delayed no in that the request clearly warrants denial. For example, there are proper channels that offenders must follow in sending mail out of the facility. An inmate may attempt to circumvent that policy through a permissive staff person. Because that staff person has the reputation as one who will reverse a refusal when pressed, it is an avenue that enterprising offenders may utilize. Therefore, though staff are generally not permitted to deliver mail from a prisoner to the outside, this may happen because of a lack of assertion.

Hell no! – Some staff will deny all requests, even the valid ones. And this is done at times with aggression, not assertion. There is a vast difference in a professionally, unemotionally stated denial and a loud, embarrassing NEGATIVE issued with booming delight. There are so many subtleties in tone and body language that need to be considered, as well.

Is no to be used all of the time? The answer there (ironically) is no. A common truism in our vocation is to give offenders what they have coming. So a denial of all requests is not necessarily automatic. Yet, we are trained to say no almost as a reflex. Fortunately, policy, procedure and experience guide us on the use of this powerful, yet short word.

About the Author – Joe Bouchard is a Librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for The Corrections Professional, Editor of The Correctional Trainer and MCA Today, and an instructor of Corrections for Gogebic Community College. You can reach him at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:



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