Let’s Just Say

Let’s just say that you booked a job two months ago.  At the time it seemed far off in the distant future.  But now, in October, that November 15th deadline is looking less and less attainable.

Let’s say you were uncomfortable taking the job.  Let’s say it’s not work you particularly like, but it’s money and it was an easy way of getting the client to stop pestering you.

Let’s say the job is easy, something you could do, but it will take a good amount of your time and the pay, while in real cash money, isn’t overly fantastic.

And, let’s say, since we’re sayin’, that the client is a bit, er, demanding.  You are the artist that took this job after he hunted and hunted and he wants to make sure you understand everything he needs.  Everything.

Let’s also say you’ve been offered other, higher paying, more satisfying work.  And you cannot do both.  You must choose.

After long, thoughtful consideration, you determine the best thing to do is to cancel the previous job and say yes to the better paying job.

You have to say no to someone you already said yes to.

Well, crap.

You likely feel a bit guilty and concerned what the ramifications of your backing out will be. But, unless you want to do the thing you just determined you cannot do, you’re going to have to have this no-fun conversation.

Before you jump into how to have the conversation, be honest with yourself about a couple of things:

  • You’re doing this for you.  It might very well be in everyone’s best interest that you’re backing out.  But you’re not being altruistic.  You’re doing this for yourself.
  • There will be negative consequences from your actions.  You can mitigate these  in how you handle the conversation and yourself, but you will not be able to completely negate them.  Accept that now, or don’t do it.
  • You are not the first person in the universe to have to back out on something.  You are not special and are therefore not deserving of the guilt and self-flagellation you are likely giving yourself.  You are not saying “no” to a combined cure for cancer, AIDS, poverty, war and hang nails; get over yourself.
By fabian_wolf via Flickr.com

By fabian_wolf via Flickr.com

OK.  First things first:

If you signed a contract, haul it out and look at it.  Read it (for not the first time!).  Determine what it says if you back out before the project is complete.  You should read the whole sha-bang, but the following sections will likely be helpful: “Termination,” “Damages,” “Limitation of Liability,” or, if you have one, “Failure to Perform.”

What happens?  Do you have to pay them money?  Do you have to find a replacement?  Will they charge you for finding a replacement on their own?  If you cannot answer these questions or if reading the contract produces more questions, talk to a lawyer.

Now.  Don’t think you have to come to them crawling on your knees over broken glass if it says so in the contract.  The contract is a baseline of what will happen if you two can’t figure anything else out.  It’s good to know and understand, but it is not the end all be all of the universe.

Next, know why you’re saying “no.”  Sounds simple, but you need to understand your “no” inside, outside and upside down.  This will help you with a couple things:

  1. You won’t be as likely to back down from your “no” if you know why you have it.  You are more likely to be talked out of doing something if you feel guilty about having to do it, even when you know it is the right thing to do.  But when you have a firm understanding of exactly why you are doing what you’re doing, you are less likely to be swayed by emotion (yours or someone else’s).
  2. You’ll be better able to explain yourself when the other side questions why you’re backing out.  It is better to prepare for those questions than it is to fumble and say “Uh, well, um, I just don’t wanna, I guess.”
  3. It’s respectful to have answers when disappointing someone.  To suddenly stand up, take all your toys and go home without any explanation is unprofessional and it will come back to haunt you.  Stick to your “no” but behave politely and treat the other person with respect. It is easier to do that when you understand why you’re saying “no.”
By dpup via Flickr.com

By dpup via Flickr.com

Whenever possible have these kinds of conversations face to face.  When that is not possible, use the phone.  Resort to email only if it means that doing something else will result in someone you love being tortured and killed horribly.

Hard conversations are hard.  They are made worse when the other person is left to wonder about what you meant by “always” and why you used the word “flabbergasted” three times in two paragraphs.  Don’t be the Post-it Note Break Up Guy; man/woman up and do the thing right.

Do your best to come to the table with alternatives for the person.  You might not always be able to do this, but when you can, do.  Think about the other person’s interests and provide alternatives that address what they want.

Alternatives can be recommending another artist for the job; they shouldn’t be a way to strong arm you into doing the job under different circumstances.  Be creative about coming up with alternatives; use what you know about their interests and BATNA to guide you.

Coming to them with alternatives shows that you’re a professional and that you’re trying to leave them in as good a position as you found them; no worse.  It’s not always possible, but it’s worth a shot.

By glassblower via Flickr.com

By glassblower via Flickr.com

The other nice thing about coming to them with alternatives is that it gives them the opportunity to say “no” to you.  Weird?  Not entirely.

Being able to reject the idea of someone who just disappointed you is psychologically satisfying.  It can also improve your recollection of the event later on: “Sure, he bailed but we weren’t really seeing eye-to-eye on the project anyway; it was for the best.”

Saying “no” is rarely fun, but it’s often necessary, and it can be done well: firmly, professionally & respectfully.

Categories: Negotiation Strategy


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3 responses to “Let’s Just Say”

  1. Ted Closson says:

    Followed your blog through from Dylan’s post Thanksgiving podcast. Wonderful stuff.

    Extremely handy info, as I’m looking to back out of a job where no money was discussed during the initial (and only) meet up, the work is out of my normal purview, the meet up occurred through a mutual friend and myself and the client simply did not jive in a way I prefer. I just have a sense this is going to quickly become maximum hassle for minimal pay (I grew up in Maine where people make a pastime of doing this to creative people- thinking we come cheap to free). So I’m thinking of bailing on the gig because other than the work he wants from me nothing has been discussed. I was actually wondering if you thought my assessment was off base?

    • Katie says:

      Ted — I always think it’s a good idea to go with your gut feeling. You know what situations you work best in and what’s going to make your skin crawl; if this guy is already making you think this job is a bad one, listen to yourself.

      It sounds like you haven’t even really said yes, but act professionally and tell him directly that you won’t be able to take on his project because this isn’t your normal gig and you don’t think you two will be a good fit for what he’s looking for. Then give him some tips that might help him find someone who can help him, including, if appropriate, how much he should expect to pay for the work he wants. Good luck!

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