Back before Bullish was even a tiny bull-embryo in my unconscious, I wrote a column about shutting down street harassers in which I suggested a single line to silence most harassers, while refusing to play their game:
“That’s not an appropriate way to talk to a woman you don’t know.”
(How do you respond to that? “Yes it is, ma’am”?)
Whether you are in salary negotiations or merely trying to do more and better work than the person in the next cubicle, sometimes all you need is one sentence.
Here are some sentences that I’ve found extremely useful in improving my career and life:
1. It’s not possible.
This versatile clause was passed down to me a friend who learned it from her therapist. And now we can all have it for free, and without hours of probing talk therapy!
Do you have a hard time saying no to commitments? Imagine yourself saying, “I really can’t.” Don’t you feel kind of guilty – for no reason?
Many people go with an even more equivocal, “I just don’t think I can fit that in” or, “Yeah, I don’t know….” This is often met with, “Well, we really need you to….” All the sudden, you are caught in some kind of emotional guilt-trip tug-of war (see Bullish: How to Win When the Workplace Runs on Feelings).
Now try, “It’s not possible.” Follow it up with, “but good luck finding someone!” or “but have a nice time!”
Try to argue with “It’s not possible.” What is the other person going to say? “Can you please make it possible”? They never do.
Saying “It’s not possible” makes you sound like exactly the kind of person who knows what is possible and what isn’t – you are visualizing your calendar in your head, calculating how many hours a task would take, and concluding that the numbers simply don’t work. You’re just reporting the facts.
2. I’d rather not.
Cousin to “It’s not possible” is “I’d rather not.” I use this every time someone at a cash register asks for my email address. I don’t say it in a mean or snotty way – I say it in a bright or cheerful way, as though the person has just asked if I want fresh-ground pepper on my food and this really is about my preferences. Oh, you thought I wanted to receive emails from the paint store? Nope! I’d rather not!
Obviously, you can’t say this one to your boss. But it works great when you’re a customer, and sometimes with a peer, especially if the tone of voice is a positive one.
3. I’m not an expert in that topic.
Say this firmly and unapologetically. You’re just saying a fact. Imagine I’m asking, “How does hydrogen fuel enhancement use electrolysis to improve fuel economy?” You say, “I’m not an expert in that topic.”
I say this all the time, for three reasons:
1) “I’m not an expert in that topic” implies that you are an expert in some other topic, which you certainly should be.
2) Nothing shuts people up faster than a blatant “I don’t know.” Refuse to speculate. When I am giving a speech on college admissions and someone asks me about what it takes to teach English in Ukraine, I suppose maybe I do know a couple of anecdotes, but so does Google. “I’m not an expert in that topic.” Full stop.
3) You look very confident when you openly tell people that you are not an expert in something they want to know about. In fact, you are building credibility; if you are willing to say you don’t know when you don’t, then when you do offer a judgment, we will assume that it comes from a place of expertise and authority. You are the woman who never cries wolf unless there’s a big fucking wolf.
When I say this, I generally find myself nodding a bit, and looking at the other person sympathetically, as though he is erroneously checking the wrong drawer in the card catalog.
4. I have five minutes right now — tell me all about it!
You have to get this in before someone starts talking. Whether the talking is going to be about your co-worker’s pet’s dander problem or actually about something important and work-related, if you delimit the conversation before it starts, you don’t offend anyone when you jump back in and end the conversation five minutes later. You can always say, “Wow, I have to get back to work, but tell me more about this when I see you this weekend,” or “Wow, I really need to know more about this – can we set up a time to talk?”
Keep in mind that the limit of human concentration is about twenty minutes, and that, as I wrote last week, multitasking is a myth. You must guard your time, and especially your non-tired, bright-and-chipper hours, whenever in the day those fall. Even if you work a 9-to-5 and are paid simply to be there, there’s no pride in taking cash for putting your ass in a chair on a scheduled basis. Cutting off distractions is crucial to fulfilling your purpose in an optimal amount of time.
5. Before I can give you a number, I just need some input from you.
Imagine if I asked you to make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and you looked around my kitchen and found everything you needed, except that I had one of those kitchen cabinet systems where you can’t really tell what’s a drawer and what’s a decorative panel, and you’re like, seriously, where’s the silverware? And then I say, from the couch, where I am nursing my busted ankle, “Can I have my sandwich now?” And you say, “I can have it for you in just a minute – I just need a knife.”
So, you wouldn’t say that as though you’re asking for a favor. Obviously, you need a knife. Any fool can see that. Asking for it is a matter of simple necessity. No feelings involved.
Some career advisors insist that, when negotiating your salary in the hiring process, you should “never say a number first.” If asked, “What’s the minimum salary you will accept?” and you give a number, that number is the most you will receive (sometimes, HR will tack on a 1% increase to make you feel warm and fuzzy while you’re being streamrolled).
Instead, say “Before I can give you a number, I just need some input from you.” Say it with a smile, and as though you are saying something very obvious. Then ask a number of questions: What is the company’s budget for the position? What are the criteria the company uses to determine whether a candidate would be compensated from the high end or the low end of the budget? What did the last person in this position make? What is the average salary across the company for people in similar positions? How does the company’s compensation compare with national averages for similar positions? Feel free to ask the same question five different ways. What are the high and low ends of the company’s budget for the position? If the company gave a candidate an offer, what’s the highest number you would expect to see on it? Etc.
If you should “never say a number first,” how do you get the other person to say a number first? Well, there are a variety of ways, but the method I’m offering here is to wear the other person down with your reasonableness. Who can argue with a person needing more information to make an informed decision?
Also, people have feelings and are strongly wired to observe the social conventions of their cultures. When someone declines to answer your first question, they might feel okay about it, but if they decline to answer your fifth question, they might start feeling as though they are being rude.
If you still can’t get a number out of the interviewer, suggest that the meeting will have to end here, and that the two of you could set up another meeting, and in the meantime, the interviewer could email you the information you need to move forward. Could anything look less desperate? (See Bullish: How Business is Like Dating).
6. Having entrepreneurial experience has been really helpful…
Also in Bullish: How Business is Like Dating, I suggested that it’s not that hard to start a company with about $40, and that doing so – even if you don’t make a lot of actual money – can benefit you in a variety of ways. Not working while you care for an infant? Put up a website offering your services as a freelancer. Set your rates to double what you’ve ever made in your field. If you get no clients, that’s cool – you weren’t planning to work anyway. If you do get clients, OMG, you’ve doubled your rates and you can afford a Brazilian male au pair (or, you know, whatever works for you).
Even a fairly low-impact entrepreneurial experience allows you to present yourself as more of a peer with a boss, and to say things like, “Having entrepreneurial experience has been really helpful, because I know what you can charge clients for this kind of service” (and therefore what you should be paying me to provide the service).
Also try, “Well, I’m asking for a raise not because I think my coworkers are making that, but because I’m comparing what I make here to what I’d be making in the private market. Having entrepreneurial experience has been really helpful in accurately valuing services in the open market.” Now you are threatening (nicely) to cut out the middleman.
7. What’s the next step?
“What’s the next step?” is the sneaky baby-step of presumptive sales. Say someone emails me with, “We are thinking that it might be a good idea to perhaps have you do a presentation at our college. We want more information.” This person now expects me to sell them on it. I have worked hard at having multiple income streams (see Bullish: How to Do Many Different Things at Once) so that I don’t have to sell anything.
So, instead of replying, “I would love to! Here are some amazing things I can do for you!”, I reply, “I’d love to, thank you! I am available on these days. What is the next step?”
Now, instead of an email with more questions, wanting me to sell them again and again (and thus put myself in a position of constantly trying to convince someone of the value of my services, even when they contacted me), I get an email that says something like, “Please fill out this W-4 form” or “Well, the Student Activities Board needs to be convinced. So, I’ll get back to you once I’ve talked to them.”
Try it! “What’s the next step?” is like inching your toes in the door of anywhere you want to go.