Bullish: Seven Sentences To Boost Your Career (and Life)

Back before Bullish was even a tiny bovine-embryo in TheGloss’s collective 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:

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 talking about our childhood traumas!

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.

In a rock-paper-scissors of facts, feelings, and something else, like maybe nunchaku, facts beat feelings, nunchaku beat everything, and feelings don’t beat anything at all.

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!

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 wrote about this one in Bullish: What I learned About Success in a Korean Cram School. 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.

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.

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, form 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.

When negotiating your salary in the hiring process, never give a number. 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.

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 suggested above 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).

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.

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 or anything, but because I’m comparing what I make here to what I’d be making in the private market.” Now you are threatening to cut out the middleman.

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.

Share This Post:
    • Eve

      Very helpful! Thank you. “I would rather not” would have been helpful yesterday when I spent more than a minute trying to convince a cashier that I didn’t want to be bombarded with shoe coupons.

      • Jen Dziura

        This truly falls into the “Why won’t you sleep with me?” category of things that you don’t need a reason NOT to do. The burden of proof, as it were, is on the asker.

    • porkchop

      In my long history of working with the public, nothing has been more consistent than the refusal to take “I don’t know” for an answer.

      • Jen Dziura

        Blank stare + smile. No, really!

    • Megan

      In my few interviews, I was interviewed both by HR people who flat out told me it was “company policy” to not disclose to candidates how much the last person at that position made, and by the VP of my (future) department, who took great pleasure in knowing he had a job to bestow. When the salary portion of the interview came up, he took pains to turn my questions about salary on themselves: “Well, you seem to only care about the money, and we’re about so much more here.” Steamrolling and unfair? Yes. But does a recent college grad still want a job at one of the fastest-growing software companies in her state? Heck, yes.

      I think one does need to be careful, regarding the salary question. It’s great to want the salary that you’re qualified for, but you need to get the job to make that money. Putting the onus on the interviewer (who most likely has more candidates for this job than you) to get back to you with a number creates more work for the interviewer. If that person is an overworked HR rep, you’ve just made their job more difficult–and moving on to the next candidate is easy. If that person is a higher-up at the company, you may have just come across as arrogant, rather than impressive. You’ve just asked the interviewer to do work for you–and they haven’t even hired you yet. In a perfect world, i think the interviewer would see the positive qualities you display by asking these questions. I’m not sure it would turn out this way in a practical sense, though.

      • Jen Dziura

        Yes, this is, sadly, a common experience! The “you seem to only care about the money” comment is incredibly manipulative. I’d probably try to say something like, “I hate having money get in the way of doing the kind of work I want to do with amazing people at an amazing company (etc etc), so it’s good to just make sure we’re on the same page so we can forget about it and talk about more important things.” But I agree — in practice, it’s hard.

      • Karen

        I recently successfully negotiated for a job (insert girlish squeal of delight), after doing actual reading on the topic in my field. One of the key things I learned is: figure out what is important to you and what is the employer going to do to address that? So you may not get X but a reasonable employer will offer some approximation of X. Alternatively, you could yourself suggest an alternative to X.

    • KatieWisdm

      I don’t get it. Is this article for real? Because this is some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard. “It’s not possible”? If I said that to a client or boss– or have one of my junior staffers say that to me– there’d be an F’ing problem! These first three “tips” would be better suited for a post entitled, “Three Sentences to Ensure You Don’t Get the Job” or, alternatively, “Three Sentences to Get Yourself Fired.”

      • Victoria

        If you say “It’s not possible?” as a question, you absolutely will make yourself look like an idiot. And you don’t use it for every situation, obvi. But if your boss happens to make an irrational demand, a confident “It’s not possible” will be followed up by you with what IS possible (and reasonable) and will make your life much less hellish. Also it will give you cred with the boss: you aren’t a blind follower who probably can’t deliver but are too frightened to admit it.

    • Carolyn

      “I’m not comfortable with that.”

      A great choice when that creepy guy asks if he can kiss you, or when a casual acquaintance asks for a $500 loan, or a male “friend” asks you out yet again when the answer has always been no. It seems (sadly) that people will actually argue with “No” and ask for reasons, but I’ve yet to meet the person that wants a better understanding of this phrase.

      Regarding salary negotiations: “From asking around, industry professionals at this level seem to be making in the — salary range.”