Wow that was rude.
September 11, 2018 12:11 AM   Subscribe

I need help with being clear about my situation and reacting to sharp, blunt responses in professional settings.

A brief background: At the moment I'm a freelancer and have to hustle a lot to get assignments for the sort of serious work I am interested in. I've spent most of my 20s either studying or being in positions that involve a lot of solitary work -- research associate, for example. The one job I've had in a more conventional set-up was right out of college and involved just two other people. One of these was my boss and they became an incredibly generous mentor to me, and continue to be one of closest friends.

All this is to say that I have little experience of the kind of clipped, businesslike brusqueness that characterises a lot of professional interactions in industries that I am operating in -- journalism, publishing etc. Academia, the context I socially and vocationally most relate to, has been more accepting of my way of relating or doing things -- expectations of rigour and meticulousness when it comes to the actual work but leeway in terms of being able to articulate ideas in an informal or casual situations...conversations can often be a lot more amorphous than those in other writing/research-based ecologies. The bottomline isn't as much of a governing principle. I've always been more of an analysis-first person, rather than someone who "leads" with hard facts -- I tend to weave the data into a thesis or substantiate my points with it rather than concatenate the facts first and then have conclusions follow. I am working on figuring out which approach works best in which scenario, because I now know there's a time and place for each. I hope this is making sense.

I was recently made very aware of my awkwardness at dealing with situations that involve a no-nonsense, clear-cut response to questions or clear communication regarding logistical/practical things. I am good at this in non-professional settings because there is less at stake but I freeze and mentally start dithering when it comes to professional interactions.

For example, in this recent scenario, an agent had approached me with an opportunity for publication and I was on track with pitching and preliminary treatment etc . But when they explained to me that I would have to send in three entire chapters to be considered by the publisher, I realised that I just didn't have the resources to do the amount of research this needed without any sort of advance or assurance. They were also being a bit pushy in that they wanted an immediate commitment and timeline which I am not in a position to give. I wanted to communicate this to them, hoping that there would be a conversation about a compromise that would meet minimum requirements -- maybe a very detailed treatment and one complete chapter, or something to that effect.

But I stumbled and opened with something I see now was perhaps the wrong thing to say, that it was too time and money-intensive to conduct this quantity of research and that as a freelancer, I didn't have much of either. Before I could proceed further, this person angrily snapped that they were a freelancer too and was I really asking whether this was worth my while? I was really taken aback by the rudeness of their tone, esp since we were speaking on the phone for the first time ever, and this worsened my anxiety about having this talk at all, making me sort of freeze up. I salvaged the situation by laughing and saying no I just wanted to be clear about the expectations of publishers, steered it back into less contentious territory and the conversation ended on a pleasant note. But it left me feeling really bad and silly, that I had come off as entitled or disrespectful and that I wasn't able to explain in clear, non-controversial terms what my issue was. I later emailed a polite message stating that I was grateful for their time and attention, had mulled over the matter and was unable to commit to a timeline at the moment, but that I would get in touch as soon as I was able to.

I need advice to (1) learn how to be succinct and direct about matters like this, cutting to the chase about facts so that there is no ambiguity about what I am saying. (2) do this in a manner that is polite and respectful and (3) respond to the rudeness of others in a way that diffuses the tension and returns the conversation to the matter at hand.

I am aware of my weaknesses in "real-time" communication and am working on addressing them, so concrete advice would be super-helpful.

posted by norwegianleather to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you’re bad at responding in the moment, “Can you leave it with me to think over and I will email you” takes off the pressure to formulate the perfect response and also means they don’t get to coerce you in the moment to give them what they want. Then you can craft a written reply that says exactly what you want.

This person was incredibly rude and you know what, better you find out before you commit to a project where you’ll be dealing with them for months on end, so thank goodness for small mercies. The reason they’re rude is because they think they’re in the power position (being able to dangle the offer of work in front of you) which means you can’t really make them not be like that.

Also you clearly weren’t overly excited about the prospect of doing chapters of free work for them for nothing so once they figured that out they had nothing to gain by being a decent human being, you saw who they actually were.

I don’t actually think you did anything wrong, fwiw and I think you dealt with it just fine in terms of diffusing the tension. But the freelancing community is a small place and relies heavily on networking so they may well be the one to have to beg for work if word gets out about their professional demeanour.
posted by Jubey at 12:29 AM on September 11, 2018 [20 favorites]

Sounds to me like you did just fine. You were clear about your boundaries and the reality of delivering quality work under unreasonable constraints. Just because somebody else is also a freelancer doesn't meant that their abilities, style, and approach are the same. It reads to me like the other person interpreted your push back as a reflection on them, which isn't the case at all. You don't need to take on their anxiety and you handled it all like a pro. The follow-up was a classy move. You're done here, carry on with what you promised knowing that you didn't compromise yourself or your work.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:06 AM on September 11, 2018 [22 favorites]

Anyone who requires an immediate, on-the-spot commitment for work like this is clearly not someone you want to work for. This sounds like the type of verbal barrage that comes from a person whose goal is to overwhelm and confuse, in hopes of gaining agreement to a situation that is always going to be unfair (and often untenable). Your reaction is absolutely logical- your brain recognized that you were being bullied.

But what you didn't recognize was that in such a situation, you are absolutely NOT required to evaluate the "requirements" in the moment, and give a firm answer. Your instinct to formulate a "counteroffer" was right and correct.

I wanted to communicate this to them, hoping that there would be a conversation about a compromise that would meet minimum requirements -- maybe a very detailed treatment and one complete chapter, or something to that effect.

There's absolutely no reason why this should not have happened- and any reasonable person would have been open to that.

The next time you're overwhelmed like this (or even if you're not overwhelmed, and you just want a little time to think), do not dismiss your right to that time. Anyone being asked to perform work in this manner can be allowed time, even an hour or so, to consider the ramifications, look at their other projects, check their schedule, and get back in touch with a considered response. Anyone who won't grant a potential employee even that small consideration is trouble in the making.

Listen with a thoughtful expression, nodding a few times, and when you can get a word in, say something like, "This is great information. I see what you're going for, and I'd love to work this project in, if at all possible. I know I have X deadlines to meet in the next month, so it comes down to scheduling. I just need to sit down to review my upcoming projects and can give you a response by ______ date/time. What is your email address, again? Or should I give you a call?"

And then have your phone out, or a planner, or something to write in, or get their business card, etc. and focus on the choreography of ensuring you have their contact details. If they counter with more "but I must know NOW!" , you can repeat another version of the above, and say things like, "I wish I could jump right on this today! But as it is, I am actually late for another conference/interview/review session as we speak (glance at your watch or phone as if to check the time) and I really should not take up any more of your time without having all the facts." And then get up/gather your things/shake their hand and if they don't offer their card or contact info, offer YOURS, and start to leave.

If you really do want the job, follow up on your own. if you realize you don't want it, then you have not done anything that could damage your relationship or reputation.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:44 AM on September 11, 2018 [26 favorites]

You did well and you come across as thoughtful and conscientious in this post. Where I see room for improvement to make things easier for you is the part where you start doubting yourself when pressured. Behaviorally, you can dodge the pressure by asking for more time, as mentioned in comments above, and practicing an assertive delivery. Mentally, this sounds like an anxiety or confidence problem. Working on that and perhaps mindfulness to get enough space to recognize what is happening might help.
posted by meijusa at 3:14 AM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wanted to clarify- when you are being pressured, it's almost ALWAYS that you are being pressured toward a decision that is not in your best interests. Car salesmen and other high-pressure salesfolk do this every damn day.

So the key element when you recognize that situation is to immediately pivot away from thoughts of "considering the offer" and "how do I reply?" to a strategy of "how do I get out of here and to a place where I can calmly consider the options?"

A business bully is trying to take your measure. The actual negotiation he is trying to have is to discover how bully-able you really are, because that tells him the degree to which he can take advantage of you.

Refuse to play his game, and substitute your own. Your new goal is to evade and pivot and get out of there with a follow-up date and contact information so you can reply with your own requirements. OR, politely decline (which is likely what you'd want to do to protect yourself from this guy and others like him).
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:36 AM on September 11, 2018 [33 favorites]

Jubey's advice about "leave it with me and I will email you" is good, as are the other tactics suggested by others for giving you time to think and reply in writing. And it sounds like this person was kind of rude, but three chapters is not someone trying to get you to do work for free, as some are characterizing it. One to three chapters and a proposal (or a synopsis, for fiction) is a pretty standard package for publishers to request (or for agents to request as part of a submission packet to publishers). And some publishing professionals can be kind of impatient with people who don't have a handle on standard protocol like this. So, familiarizing yourself more with the industry will help you be better prepared when situations like this come up. (Having said that, I don't think it's unreasonable that you wanted to have a conversation about alternatives, but as you now recognize, it probably wasn't framed in the best way. This is where familiarity with industry expectations can help you.)
posted by tiger tiger at 4:59 AM on September 11, 2018 [8 favorites]

They were manipulating and bullying you.

This is not a real opportunity and please pass on dealing with this particular person in the future.

Also - was he a man and are you female? I ask because your instinct was to laugh and deflect when the agent got angry, a tactic women often use when men act threatening. Either way, please understand the agent’s response to your boundry was threatening, not professional.

I’m sure you’ll get great advice on how to push back in professional settings in this thread. I just want to confirm the agent wasn’t being precise and to the point, the agent was being a bully. This is kinda what they do, you were not unprofessional or ungrateful in any way.
posted by jbenben at 5:58 AM on September 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

Upon preview- even if three chapters is industry standard + the bullying is standard for the role of agent, this still read to me like someone you might not want to work with. It feels like the old timey movie cliche of, “”Well, kid do you want your big break or not?” as the hero considers walking a tightrope over a pit of lions or whatever.
posted by jbenben at 6:09 AM on September 11, 2018

I always repeat back to them what they said so they hear the insanity. "Let me understand what you are proposing. You want me to research and write 3 entire chapters, 25% of the actual book, in short order, on the come, to see if they will then decide to buy it. Also, right now, you cannot even tell me what this will pay in the event they do sign up?" Then let them talk. They will hear how insane their proposal was/is. If they just reply, "Yes, that is what I am proposing." Respond, with, "I am willing to consider most proposals, but this is not jumping out at me. I will get back to you by EOD (end of day). Then think it over and get back to them after you have been able to compose a response.

Btw, I agree with most above that this person is a bully and trying to pressure you into something that may not be in your best interest. The other thing to do with a guy like this is to say yes to get them off the phone and then later in the day, call them back or email and tell them that after having a chance to think about it, the only way you will do it is if it is only one chapter and you give me a $500 expense advance. (Or whatever you want.)
posted by AugustWest at 6:49 AM on September 11, 2018 [8 favorites]

Sheesh, if that person you were talking to was also a freelancer, you'd think they'd have a little more sympathy/insight into the very real necessity to check one's schedule before committing to any big new projects.

I really like I_Love_Bananas script for dealing with situations like this in the future, but I might even take it a step further and develop a business policy for yourself. It doesn't have to be lengthy or overly formal, just something that you can refer to if needed when navigating some trickier projects or more unruly clients. It might be easier to push back against an overbearing client if you can drop in something like "I have a policy of waiting X hrs/days before accepting any proposals that will require more than Y amount of time to ensure that I have the time in my schedule to do the project justice." What are they going to do, argue with you? You have a POLICY.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:54 AM on September 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

Those who promise without checking their schedule first are almost always the ones who flake out later and cause even more problems in the long run.

Having a POLICY (as so well stated by helloimjennsco) allows you to emphasize the benefit of ensuring to the best of your ability that you will not be "that guy" to an employer.

Again- these are all great strategies to give you a strong position from which you can defend your right to not be bullied.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:25 AM on September 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

When others react angrily towards us, it is not always because we have done something to anger them. Sometimes, it's really more about what's going on with them, what they're dealing with on their end, which it's not even possible for us to know about. I would say that's especially the case if someone treats you this way on your first interaction/meeting.

The only thing to do there is to maintain your own boundaries, which it sounds like you did quite well. What seems to be distressing about it is the possibility that their anger was somehow your fault - it was not. Certainly not in this case, and it probably wasn't and won't be in other similar cases, past and future.

It might help to increase your capacity for weathering that kind of reaction from others, and that starts with reminding yourself of what I said above: it's really more about them than about you (no matter how much they try to make it seem like it is about you). Your intuition is right-on in how it immediately picked up the disproportionality of this person's anger/hostility, so give it some credit. And give yourself some credit for handling it so well, as well as some slack about not taking full responsibility for the behavior of others. This was a case where their anger wasn't, and shouldn't be, your problem.
posted by obliterati at 7:32 AM on September 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am semi-prominent in my field, and get professional requests all the time, of varying amounts of reasonableness. I have more or less the same response every time:

"Thanks for your interest. I'll need to look at my availability and get back to you. I'll follow up by [date]."

Then I evaluate - or don't, if I already know I'm not going to do it - and get back to them on that date. If I decide that it's not worthwhile to take them up on their offer, I just say, "Thank you for the opportunity. Unfortunately, it won't be possible for me to [attend/participate]. Best wishes." I don't give a reason - ever. It's none of anyone's business why I can't.
posted by juniperesque at 7:56 AM on September 11, 2018 [10 favorites]

Then let them talk. They will hear how insane their proposal was/is.

But it...wasn't? Publisher expectations will vary, and it's on the high end, but this is not out of range for a non-fiction work.

Further, even if the agent is wrong and the publisher would accept less as a pitch, that's an error in professional judgment, not an inappropriate attempt to extract free work from the author. Everyone understands that those three chapters are absolutely worthless to the agent by themselves, right? I mean they are literally only useful to the agent for getting the contract. It's not "free work" for them, because it does them no good unless the book is finished. They can't use it for themselves, unless they happen to have a really intense personal interest in preliminary writing on the topic. It's just for pitching the author to the publisher. (Mefi is good on the "don't work for free" principle, but not always on picking up on when it doesn't apply.)

Still rude, though. In that kind of situation, I will often just pause and say, "I'm sorry?" And let the silence stretch out a bit. If they are a decent person, they will usually realize that they've said something inappropriate and will retract or rework what they said. If they're not, you've at least dropped the marker that you're not going to passively accept being snapped at.

However--if you had responded to my initial email with "this is too time- and money-intensive for me," I would've said, "OK, then, good luck in your future endeavors" and moved on to someone else. It's not that you would have offended me; it's that I wouldn't see any point in wasting further time discussing with you something you weren't interested in or available for. So, yes, I think you're not entirely wrong in thinking you need to tighten up your business communications a bit. Do not think out loud in job negotiations. They are not normal conversations. Use the "noncommital" scripts above until you have a better idea of what your actual opinion is. Do not say anything that might terminate negotiations if taken seriously, unless you're actually prepared for negotiations to be terminated.
posted by praemunire at 8:39 AM on September 11, 2018 [18 favorites]

I agree that they were unreasonable and you were polite. However, you may have a tendency to over-explain and get too personal. That can lead to undesired consequences in the settings you describe. This post itself serves as a good example - it's a lot of exposition.

The instinct to be thorough comes from a good place. However, it can backfire when people have a lot going on and not enough time to do it. The person you mention here may be an assistant and not have much authority, so telling her about the financial burden this request puts on you might just make her feel dumped on because she doesn't know you and it's not something she can solve. She just wants to get through this call. Is that response generous of her? No, but it's also not her job to decide whether you should take this project on based on your time and financial resources. It's yours.

All of this to say - it's actually a kindness to both of you to find a simple, friendly and practical way to communicate what can realistically happen next. Lots of good suggestions here on how to do that.
posted by amycup at 8:43 AM on September 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

Since your question is about how you can fit into the professional standards of the publishing field, it's worth taking a moment to ask whether this agent was representative of those standards.

It's true that the agent's information was factually correct -- sample chapters would indeed be standard for a book proposal.

However, an agent's job is to serve as a bridge between authors and editors. This means they have to be able to work well with lots of different types of people. This particular agent put you on the spot, made you feel uncomfortable, and left you feeling bullied and full of self-doubt. It's especially egregious because they approached you, which is highly unusual, and suggests that you have some perspective or skill that the agent felt made you a particularly valuable client. They should have been in full-on courtship mode!

So maybe they aren't very good at their job. Or maybe their communication style just isn't the right match for yours at this specific moment. Either way, it sounds like the two of you aren't the best match right now.

That said, I do think that effective communication is a useful skill. And I'll be honest: I had to read your third paragraph several times before I was able to extract the key facts I needed to understand your question. So I think you're absolutely right that being concise might be something to practice.

You might ask yourself the following questions before any professional interaction:

• What action do I want this person to take? ("I want them to offer me advice on good communication skills.")

• What is the bare minimum information I need to provide them with so that they can take the action, if we have a very brief conversation? ( "I used to be in a field where people had long philosophical conversations, and I am switching to one where conversation is shorter and more fact-oriented.")

•What are some additional facts that might help them take more effective action, if we have a bit more time to go into it? ("The old field was academia, and the new one is journalism.")

• What is some interesting background that I can hold in reserve in case it ends up being a long and detailed conversation? (Everything else in your third paragraph.)

Ideally, you'd write your answers down. That way, you'd have them on hand to refer to during a phone conversation, to help you focus. But even if you don't have it with you, I think the mere act of answering these questions will help you zoom in on the crucial details, and make you more confident when the time comes to pull them out.
posted by yankeefog at 8:51 AM on September 11, 2018 [10 favorites]

It is *vital* as a freelancer that you are able to make sure any project you take on is worth your while. The person you spoke to, as a freelancer, should know this. Taking on that much research with no advance or assurance? Nooooo. Even they knew it was a bad idea, which is why they were trying to bully / guilt you in to accepting.

In these situations, when someone is being pushy or rude, I generally tell them I will assess my current workload and get back to them via email. I also have a hard time being concise when I'm flustered or put on the spot, and moving the conversation to email gives me time to collect myself, write a good response, and sometimes even run the scenario by a colleague or friend to make sure I'm communicating effectively.
posted by ananci at 11:43 AM on September 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't think there is a clear path to having a "succinct and direct" response when people randomly point blank questions at you in business situations. Thoughtful responses take time and energy; unless you want to become great at canned bs lines and charming deflection, there will be some amount of "mental dithering" in response to random, often complex demands for information. In my experience folks who tend to "demand answers" are either largely unaware of how their communications come across or doing it intentionally, since unprepared people will usually give a bad answer that either is more in favor of whatever the asker wanted or easier to pick apart/discredit.

I think (1) usually involves trying to give a best estimate to what you think their main request is (in this case I assume the timeline for you to do whatever work and also a yes response overall), if you have similar past projects you could say something along the lines of "Recent project x which was about 1/4 the scope of this took 2 months, so we'd likely be looking at 8 months, but this is just a rough metric- I'd need to think about it more to get you a better estimate, how does tomorrow sound?" For something like an estimate of work that's higher than you'd normally expect, just compare to something else that you have the facts handy for. If you need to stall for a small amount of time and can talk while thinking (I cannot do both successfully) repeat some of the details they mentioned back to them to make sure you captured all the details right or express vague enthusiasm for the idea put forth. You can even say something like "hold on, need to start taking notes!". Some friends of mine practice interviews, conversations, or do trivia but personally I find all that stressful - YMMV. I don't think you need help with (2). (3) Aggressively assume the best out of everyone, until a preponderance of evidence makes this strategy outmoded. There are rude, angry, bad folks all over, but an initial phone call that seemed rude could be bad communication style on their end, a failed joke, or many other things- de-escalate the situation mentally yourself before you need to actually de-escalate it. Lot less stressful and I find getting stressed out makes the mind blanks far more frequent. Also think you did a great job of (3) in this case too.
posted by love2potato at 6:43 PM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for some excellent advice. My initial contact was through email & I was not expecting to talk on the phone, so I was also completely caught off-guard. I am going to practise being polite but non-committal so I have the time to frame my thoughts concisely. My instinct is always to respond in a manner befitting the statement so if it were a social acquaintance/ friend, I'd have been tart. But of course I do have the sense not to do so in a work context. There are some great strategies here to curb my tendency to panic and rush out with whatever words are at hand!
posted by norwegianleather at 11:02 AM on September 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

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