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VIDEO: How to use “Competence Triggers” in a salary negotiation

I love today's question from reader Guro W.: "How do I discover the job's pay rate and is it ok to ask at all?"

Ramit Sethi

The best places to people-watch are airports, clubs, and the subway. The amount of concentrated ridiculous human behavior on display is amazing. If you’re wondering why I have my sunglasses on at 2:30am at Marquee…now you know.

One of the things I like looking at is something I call “Competence Triggers.” These are telltale behavioral signs of someone with high competence — who’s good at what they do — or low competence.

For example, someone who speaks slowly is perceived very differently than someone who speaks quickly, with his eyes darting around.

And you can actually MASTER these Competence Triggers — changing not only how others perceive you, but you perceive yourself!

That’s why I love today’s question from IWT reader Guro W.:

“How do I discover the job’s pay rate and is it ok to ask at all? Lots of time they do not mention anything about pay.”

This sounds like a tactical question, but it’s actually about Competence Triggers. Because would a Top Performer ever ask that question?

Check out my video response:

Now, I’m curious: Think about the last social interaction you had. Could be a party, hanging out with your friends, even dinner with your parents.

Did anyone give off any noticeable low- or high-competence triggers? What specifically? Leave a comment below.

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  1. avatar
    Heather Sloan

    Once again, you’ve helped me start start my day with a laugh. Low competence/high competence behavior is an often over-looked concept. Thanks for the reminder and for the great video!

  2. avatar

    What do you do if they ask you about your current and expected salary?

    I always tell them Ramit’s line of “let’s talk about salary later but now let’s see if this job is a good fit for me and I am a good fit for it” but it never works. A typical recruiter/HR person says that they must know at least my expected salary to see if they should proceed further. At that point I have no choice but to ask them what their budget is and give them some clue as to what I am expecting.

  3. avatar

    I have run into that as well. The HR person just stops the interview at that point and won’t move on to any other questions. Is there a good way to handle that sort of response?

  4. avatar

    You have a lot of arm hair.

  5. avatar

    I agree I was just in the initial phases of the interview process and used all of Ramits rebuttals and the response the recruiter gives me is “give me your salary information or thank you for your interest.” This is at multiple Fortune 500 Organizations.

  6. avatar
    David K

    If you run into this scenario I’ve always said “That’s a good question. What’s the current range for the position?” Then pick the high end. 🙂

    The other thing that I’ve noticed is that if it’s an external recruiter asking they are just looking to find a good/quick fit. They are usually “on your side” because their goal is aligned to get you a higher salary since they often make a percentage. That’s a win-win.

  7. avatar

    Being able to follow the thread of a conversation is a pretty basic one, I’d say. Rabbit-trailing too fast seems like a teenage girl behavior.

    Appropriate levels of eye contact. Not enough seems distracted, too much seems creepy.

    One interesting indicator to me is “What does this person display irritation regarding?” Getting irritated easily about petty things (not just jokingly) is a big red flag in my book. If they’re paying that much attention to irrelevant details, how much brainspace do they really have left for the important issues?

    All three of these are ‘relevancy’ indicators, I guess. Does this person ‘get it’? Do they understand what’s important? Too many flags in these areas, and I won’t be able to trust their judgment, even if their intentions and integrity are spotless.

  8. avatar
    Adeniyi seun

    Thanks a lot Ramit… High competence/low competence triggers duely noted

  9. avatar
    Chris Clark

    Just had coffee with a co-worker I met for the first time who was giving off a number of high-competence triggers:

    1.) Mentioned working cross functionally on a project she owned [i.e. her work is bigger than just her team]
    2.) Mentioned de-prioritizing work because it was lower value [i.e. she is in a position to pick and choose work based on value]
    3.) Asked to pick my brain about an area I have worked on in the past and then followed up 15 minutes after our coffee with other stakeholders on copy [i.e. she is expanding her knowledge and she follows through]

  10. avatar
    Susan H.

    I went to a book discussion group where we’d all read the same book. As each person discussed the book, there was a noticeable difference between participants. Some people spoke softly, looking at the table, or in brief glimpses at others, and made very “wishy-washy” statements about the book to the extent it was unclear whether they actually liked the book or not. Then they sat back and just listened. Others addressed the whole group, clearly, but not aggressively, stating personal likes, dislikes, etc. Then they openly engaged in discussion throughout the session.

    The first group of people seemed to feel lower competence in expressing their opinions. The latter group seemed to feel completely competent in expressing their opinions.

  11. avatar
    Bryan Wampler

    I don’t agree this is true with Sales positions, especially higher paying positions. In my personal experience, I have recruiters contact me about “great” opportunities for “top tier” performers that have total comp packages 25 – 50% below market. When I’m open to searching or might want to recommend a buddy, I always ask “what’s the general expected range of comp for this position?” Or something similar (OTE, etc.).

    Otherwise you waste everyone’s time talking to some cheapskate company that’s looking for a “deal”. My 2 cents.

  12. avatar

    I pulled a high competence trigger recently at work. I discussed a one-day commitment with an executive at my company. We reviewed the expectations about what I’d be doing, for how much time, etc.

    Then when I saw my direct boss the next day, I said something like “Oh, I told so-and-so that I’d be happy to work on that project next month. I didn’t discuss compensation with him, but i figured that [XXX] was reasonable. What do you think?” She said “Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought about it, but that sounds great.”

    I got exactly what I wanted, and just threw the request out there as an afterthought!

    During that interaction with both people, I kept Ramit’s prerogative in mind — find out if the expected work clicks with what you want to do, and make compensation barely a factor. I’m excited to do this more often!

  13. avatar

    Someone I work with actually has a low competency trigger that I’m painfully reminded of everyday. She, who ironically is obsessed with telling other people about their competency triggers, has the tendency to raise the pitch of her voice at the end of sentences. I’ve noticed on several occasions that her interactions rub people the wrong way because of that voice trigger.

  14. avatar

    One I see often is the “I talk really fast and respond really fast” versus the “I speak more slowly and consider before responding” difference.

  15. avatar
    John Garvens

    I used high-competence triggers today during a job interview. An hour-long interview. Not one mention of salary. We were too busy deciding if it was a good fit. If they decide to bring me in for a second interview, I expect that salary will come up. But for now, I just want to know about the job.

  16. avatar

    Do you reccomend That let’s you see how much a specific company is offering, but has less data than bigger sites. I actually think I heard about it from this blog years ago!

    I sat through the most painful lunch presentation this week. The presenter was presenting someone else’s slides, and took no ownership of them, didn’t seem to know what he was talking about, and said things like “well, you can read the bullets” and “so maybe that’s the takeaway” (regarding something that was clearly NOT the main takeaway). Low competency.

  17. avatar

    Did you get this idea from the book The Game?

  18. avatar
    Annika S

    OMG, I was at a potluck dinner one night with a whole bunch of people & for some reason this guy decided he was going to talk to me ALL night about this new gym where he goes & the drama of leaving his old gym, even though there was clearly no interest on my part. I was literally looking in the opposite direction, enjoying my food & going “mm” periodically. I remember thinking, man, this guy should check out Ramit’s site, he has NO IDEA what he’s doing & probably wonders why no girls are interested in him.
    The fact that he kept going on and on without my putting an end to it did make me aware of my own low competency signals, so I quickly turned the game around & actively sought a new conversation partner.

  19. avatar
    Sarah Walker, International Superstar

    You still hang out at Marquee?

  20. avatar

    Well played. I might just have to use that.

  21. avatar

    Definitely posture. Body language is critical, just watching you in the video you can see a big difference in your posture as you acted out the two roles.

  22. avatar

    And you must have a lot of time, Sir.

  23. avatar

    So last thursday we went to an afterwork with people who work in the same compagny as me but I had never met before.
    low-CT: the guy who would jump on anyone talking to him, me not daring speaking of something else when they were sharing common memories for hours
    high-CT: the guy only saying a few words but whose words set up the whole conversation, the guy who would check the other girls around though he could have just flirted with me

  24. avatar

    Annika: you are a true queen of patience and tolerance and kindness. Most people would not have waited as long as you say you did. I do not believe for a second you have low competency signals. Clearly the guy was blind and deaf. I pity him and pray and hope he gets the help he needs.

  25. avatar

    Hi Chris Clark: I liked your comment. Could you clarify something for me, please? In your 3rd point you wrote “on copy”. I have never heard nor read that phrase before and would appreciate some context. Thanks

  26. avatar

    Totally with you Bryan. Those guys and the companies they represent are just saying BS. True “top tier” performers won’t undervalue their worth. And the best companies know this and will compensate handsomely for high quality sales people. In the end, performance is everything.

  27. avatar

    My experience is similar – whether I’m interviewing directly with a company or a recruiting agency, the conversation always comes around to “what salary do you expect?” and nothing less specific than a fairly narrow range – say a $10,000 band – will allow the interview to proceed. When I use Ramit’s line (which I first learned some time ago), the response is always “no, we need to know what salary you expect or we can’t proceed from here.”

    I’ve tried to turn the situation around by making a pre-application enquiry about the salary “to help me judge whether the role is at the right level of seniority for me” or something similar, but that rarely generates any useful information either.

    The only exceptions are the too-rare occasions where the organisation includes the salary or salary band in the job description or ad.

  28. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    I have a very specific, word-for-word followup if this happens. It’s in my Dream Job course.

  29. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    Especially fascinating that they’d ALL read the exact same book, yet their competence triggers revealed totally different levels of understanding/mastery. Great example.

  30. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    Very good. One counterintuitive finding is that cost is usually not the primary driver that companies care about — even though people go their entire lives thinking it is!

  31. avatar
    Krys Freeman

    Hi Juan,

    I think what “Chris Clark” means by “on copy” is that the “other stakeholders” were cc’ed on the message.

    I could be wrong 🙂 But that’s my best guess.


  32. avatar

    I’m reading The Fountainhead right now, so the idea of learning who to ignore has been running through my mind lately. And your headshot is fuck ugly, but I see what you’re doing there- eyes are pointed at the call to action. I bet most people don’t get that.

  33. avatar

    Hi everyone. I feel I have relatively good social skills ONCE the conversation starts. I really have awkward moments when entering a room of unknowns or mostly unknowns. I COULD DEFINITELY use the media training that you have had. When will my plane ticket be a available?

  34. avatar

    Thanks for the refresher. I know you have covered this before and it is still great advice. Your videos have given me a different perspective on people. It’s interesting which competence triggers you pick up from family members, coworkers, even complete strangers. My main thing when it comes to interviewing is smiling. I feel like I’m forcing it. How do you make seem natural during an interview?

  35. avatar

    I met a guy that rambled. I don’t think he understood he was rambling but I felt he kwpt going off topic so many times over the course of the conversation. I said one sentence or question and it set him off for a few minutes. He was nervously trying to get a date. I have friend that talks really fast. I’ve told her about it and she can’t hear it. I finally got it on video and can’t wait to show her. She talks so fast it borders on rambling. It’s evident in when I get a book for a text message. Now she’s read your blog uses some of your techniques. But I think she would be a real challenge to convince to break this habit. Now mind you her fast talk has worked in the past. My concern is trying to get even higher.

  36. avatar

    One thing I say often is: “I might just be stupid.” Or “but maybe I’m dumb.” Usually the person listening says “no! You’re really smart.” However, I’m not winning them over to my line of reasoning. This is starting to make me think that even though others say I’m smart, by me making these self deprecating comments, it gives them doubt.

    In trying to be humble, I’m actually signaling a low- competence trigger. From now on, I am going to replace it with the phrase ” based on my own research/reading/opinion (blank) is what I believe”