Don’t say no, say “Yes, but…”

Seems like this is the year (or month or something) of saying no.  We’ve been enjoying Femomhist‘s series on the topic, and have been cheering Dr. Crazy‘s new found ability to say no to unreasonable requests.

#1 is a big proponent of saying, “Yes, but…” to unreasonable requests.  Think about what you would need to make something worthwhile.  If what you would need in return is unreasonable, so much the better.

So, “Yes, I will teach an overload this semester, but I will need a course reduction in writing in the future.”  “Yes, I will allow my section to be twice as large, but I will need grading support.”  “Yes, I will be chair of the department, but only if you double my salary.”  Maybe not quite that blunt on the last one, but you get the idea.  (Ideally you phrase it in a way that makes it sound like you need the thing in order to benefit the department, “As you know, my research agenda is very important for the department’s ranking…” “As you know, it is vital that the students get feedback on their homework, and without grading support…”  “Doing a good job as chair will take up a lot of time, and I’ll need to be able to make some cuts in time-use at home, may not be able to apply for grants,…”)

Sometimes they say yes, they can get you what you need, and the unreasonable request is no longer as unreasonable.  Often they say they can’t do that and move on to their next victim.

The big benefit to this strategy is that you are no longer the first or even the second person that they ask to do these unreasonable requests.  And, by the time they get to you, they may be desperate enough that they’re willing to give compensation.

#2 notes that her requests for compensation are usually also unreasonable given the monetary restrictions in her department.  So either she gets forced into doing it anyway, or else it becomes a hard NO because the thing that would make it a YES are unavailable.  For example, my college won’t pay me enough to be chair of our department.  I would need a WHEELBARROW more money than they’re willing to give in order to even consider it.  And also, the dean got annoyed when I made it clear that’s what I wanted.  For some reason I should just do it out of the goodness of my heart, I guess?  HAIL NO.  #1 notes that this is how it is supposed to work– that hard NO isn’t really a hard no, it’s a Yes, but it’s too bad you can’t compensate appropriately for what you’re asking.  If the dean really wanted you to do it, ze would have come up with the funds.  Fortunately for you someone else had a lower asking price.

How do you react to unreasonable requests?

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16 Responses to “Don’t say no, say “Yes, but…””

  1. Spanish Prof Says:

    So far, I said yes in exchange for not teaching a Spanish Composition (not a course reduction, just an easier course) next semester. Probably the worst deal in the history of my institution, but I am learning.

    Next year I may be in an even worse position: the new language coordinator is awful. She is making my life difficult, but I have tenure. She is making the instructors lives even worse. The Chair hinted that she wanted me to take that role. It involves a course reduction and a small stipend, but it is still something I feel no attraction for. However, maybe my life will be easier if I say yes (there are other considerations, like the possibility of losing majors, etc). Hope it doesn’t make it to that point,

  2. delagar Says:

    I like the “Yes, but…” strategy. (Adding it to my toolkit…)

  3. First Gen American Says:

    Sage advice. I think I read somewhere that this is an area that men tend to be better at than women. Ie, women are more likely to agree to crazy work requests without asking for the appropriate support to be successful.

    To add to this, I often get asked the question, what will it take to make this program go faster. It’s always good to have an answer to that question even if the answer is something you know won’t get funded or supported.

  4. plantingourpennies Says:

    The first rule of improv is that instead of saying “no”, it’s always “yes, and”.

    Can you quack like a duck for me?
    Yes, and it sounds much better when others join in!

  5. Rented life Says:

    I just sent in a yes but to where I adjunct. Yes I’ll teach the class I hate teaching but not at night, where I’d get home after 10pm. Husband did a yes but with his parents (who he is still negotiating boundaries with): yes you can take us to dinner but only to these places. (We are very mindful of their budget. They are not mindful of my dietary limits or the fact he simply hates certain places given his line of work and what he knows about those places.) it also allows us to make sure the visit isn’t too long.

    My other job I just remind them I will bill for all work I do. Yes, I’ll do that little write up but I’ll charge for my time thank you.

  6. Debbie M Says:

    I like it.

    I don’t normally think in those terms, but after a couple of colleagues asked me if I would take my old job back (no), I decided to think whether there were conditions under which I would. And there are: I cannot be under or over my last boss–sideways is okay, there has to be a different Registrar, the mediocre person I was replaced with has to leave, the good one who was added has to stay (and/or be replaced when she decides to move on), and I’d want a 10% pay increase. It’s a much better perspective than just thinking “You couldn’t pay me enough to jump back into those working conditions” or, as I told my penultimate boss, “I’d rather eat beans and rice out of the back of a van I’d had to move into than to keep working here.” Actually, that last was a valuable perspective, too.

    (And, sort of like listing all the reasons a break-up probably happened, having a list of conditions helps you not forget what you need.)

    So the “yes, but …” strategy changes your thinking subtly from, “what, are you crazy??” or “why do you hate me so much?” to “hey, we both have things we want, so let’s take a look at those and see what happens.” And if the powers-that-be hear often enough what it is that people want, they are more likely to take advantage of opportunities where they can make those things available. The conversation may help us be more creative in finding ways to do as much as possible (as a group) with what we have.

    And, as you said, it’s a better defense than plain old “yes” or even just “no.” You seem less unreasonable (unless your request is over-the-top) than people who imply that there are no conditions at all under which they would agree to the request by just saying no.

    • Rumpus Says:

      Yeah, the strategy moves this into more traditional negotiation (trading worth, possibility of mutual win) and away from the initial unreasonable “gimme”.

  7. chacha1 Says:

    I haven’t really had to engage with assignments like this for a while because in my line of work, job descriptions tend to be carved in stone. I definitely hadn’t mastered it the last time I needed it, when I was managing a small office and ended up doing every damn thing.

    Where I *have* been able to apply the “yes, but” constructively is in the nonprofit I volunteer with. You know how it is … the person who gets stuff done is always the one asked to do more. Using “yes, but” cuts a lot of those requests off at the pass because somehow there is never anyone else available to take care of the “but” factor. As it were. :-)

  8. Dr. Virago Says:

    YES! (To your post, not to unreasonable demands!) I’ve learned to do this recently, with some finesse, I think. The outcome of my Yes, But negotiations isn’t yet entirely realized, but recently I was offered a sizable admin position, and I said, Yes, but only if I get so many course releases, a summer stipend, and remuneration for the fact that it’s too late to give me a course release this semester. I’d also like a grad assistant and office space. I put it all in terms of “this is what I need to do this well, to make it happen.” The dean said OK but the higher ups have to sign off on it. If any of the first set of things are taken away — *especially* the course releases — my “yes, but” turns to a “no thanks.”

  9. John in Newark DE Says:

    I’m an adjunct (computer science). Back before the dot.com bust, our undergraduate programs were overflowing. I used to get asked “would you teach a large section or would you rather teach two sections of the same course?”. Well. I work a full-time job, but I hate giving the same talk twice.

    When I responded “I love playing to a packed house but hate to repeat myself”, I always got a smile from the chair. I would much rather teach two different courses in the evening – I know it’s a lot of work, but if I have a good grader it is very managable. I would also occasionally let one of the better grad students have a shot in the front of the room to give them some experience (with me in the audience to rescue them if need be).

    To each his own, I suppose.

  10. Mel Says:

    The only hard part is a lot of the requests that come with work aren’t really requests. I mean, I can say “no” or make it a “yes, but,” but a lot of times it’s clear that if I say “no,” I better also be willing to see my performance as a worker downgraded.

    • Mel Says:

      Whereas unreasonable requests outside of work — PTA fundraisers, reviews, events, etc — are much easier to turn into a “yes, but” from where I stand.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      At work they tend to respect me more with the Yes, but … because it signals that my time is valuable. My colleagues who kill themselves saying yes to everything just get asked to do more crap work as their reward. I get to focus more on the things that help my career rather than just grunt work. Or I get what I need to do a good job on what they’ve asked or I get something that makes up for me doing what they’ve asked. Yes, I can do X, but I will need Y and Z to accomplish it.


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