Have You Ever Made An Exception?

Has anyone ever told you no?

An off the cuff remark from a former Wall Street Exec caught my attention.   He visited UCSC last week, and gave a talk about the financial crisis to our economics class.  Somehow in the Q&A we went on a tangent, and he got to talking philosophy.  The question:  How do you get what you want?

His words:

“Listen guys, life is a bitch.   People say no to you.  You need to reject that answer.  Every day tell my employees to get me a form signed or to get something done.   Maybe I need a reservation somewhere.   One time my rookie assistant told me “I couldn’t do it–they said no”   I told her “Of course they did!   I don’t care.   Get them to say yes!  Make it happen.   Never take no for an answer.   Keep pushing.  You’ll get what you need.   It doesn’t always work, but it does most of the time.”

His body language collapsed towards the end of his rant and it was obvious he wanted to take back some things he said.  There was an awkward fit of murmuring in the audience.  I can just imagine people filling in the hypothetical situations where you should take no for an answer.  Sure, he miscalibrated the remark, but there’s a lesson in here.

You should expect to hear the word no.   If you don’t hear it very often, you’re not pushing hard enough.    

The word “No” sucks.   Especially when it’s from someone who can help you.   Someone who has what you need.   A gatekeeper.   A person, just like you or me, whose life is busy and doesn’t need the added complexity you bring to the table.

If you haven’t planned for the possibility of a “no, I can’t do that,”  you’re a fool.  Two ways to mitigate this possibility come to mind:

You can phrase your question so “no” isn’t a default answer.   Here is a good example and a bad example of phrasing.

BAD:  ”Can you help me out with this [form/problem/task/etc]?”

GOOD:  ”I need you to help me out with this [form/problem/task/etc], how can we do this?”

Bottom line, think up ways to ask the question that make it a “long answer question” instead of a “multiple choice” question.   If you give people an easy way to say no, they will.  Because they’re busy.   And especially if they don’t know you very well.

Ask Whether They’ve Made An Exception

Okay, let’s say you phrased your question correctly, and you still hear “no.”   Here’s what you come back with:  “Have you ever made an exception?”

In my experience, most people say no to difficult or confusing questions.   Saying no is a default response.   By asking whether they’ve ever made an exception, you force them to think about it more.  This followup question gives you a starting point.   Find out more about the circumstances and try to finagle your way into meeting their standards.

Why is this relevant?

I recently discovered I was missing a grad requirement.  I need one more class to graduate UCSC.  At UCSC we run the quarter system, each quarter is 10 weeks long.   It was week 4.   That’s pretty late to realize I need to add a class.

I spent last Wednesday going to every Econ class I could and asking teachers for permission to enroll.   How many professors do you think gave me a permission code to their class?

Three out of four.   One said no and wouldn’t budge.  He actually started shouting at me. Three said yes.   Two were easy to convince, but one of them said no before saying yes.

The negative nancy professor is worth looking at:

“Professor, I’m new to your class.   I know it’s late in the quarter, but I really need to add a fourth class.   Is it too late to join?”

Recall good and bad question phasing.   I fucked up– I made it easy to say no.   So he said no.   It’s okay though–hit them with the trump card.

“Well, have you ever made an exception?  I looked at your syllabus and it says the first midterm in the two weeks.   I missed some homework but I only care about passing the class, I don’t need an A”

“… I suppose I could let you in.   Here’s a permission code.”

Victory feels good.

That permission code could mean the difference between an extra five weeks of school and almost $2000 dollars in tuition, or spending the month of July in Santa Monica with my family.   I’d rather spend time with my Mom before I travel the world than sitting in a classroom with a professor.  Wouldn’t you?


Interested in learning more about negotiating?   Check out Stuart Diamond’s book “Getting More.”   Most negotiating books focus on power struggles and posturing, but this one is different.  Most people act emotionally, not logically when they negotiate.  The author tells you how to keep things civil and still get what you want–and it works better than yelling.

Sound useful? Go buy the book.

When have you negotiated your way out of a hairy situation? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

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