The Magic of ‘No’ in a Negotiation

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Good negotiators are always focussing on how to get the other side to say “yes”. This has proven to be an effective approach because it takes the focus away from “what I want” to “what do they need for me to get them to agree?” It means that most of your effort is spent trying to avoid having them say “no”.

Great negotiators, however, move beyond this. Rather than trying to avoid “no”, they work with it to take the process forward. This is because in a negotiation people find it easier to say “no” than “yes”. Chris Voss, who spent 25 years as the FBI’s chief hostage negotiator, has shared his experiences in his recent book, Never Split the Difference – Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It. In some of the most difficult negotiations with some of the most dangerous negotiating parties, he had much more success with “no” than “yes”. Even though we might not be negotiating with criminals and terrorists (hopefully!), we can still learn a great deal from Chris’ methods.

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In any negotiation, it is easier to say “no” than “yes”. “No” is a protection word – protecting them from what they don’t want. “Yes” is a commitment word, and the second we say it, we become worried about what we have committed ourselves to. It becomes worse the more we say “yes”. At the back of your mind is that warning voice asking, “What are you getting yourself into here?”

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So, if saying “no” is easier for the other party, why don’t we use this? Can we change our questions to them so saying “no” gets us the result we want? The answer is a resounding “yes!”. Here are some examples:

Instead of asking: “Is this a good time to talk?”
Try: “Is this a bad time to talk?”
Instead of asking: “Do you think we can reach agreement here?”
Try: “Can you see anything getting in the way of us reaching agreement here?
Instead of asking: “Can you help me here?”
Try: “Is there anything stopping you from helping me here?”
The principle in a nutshell is: can you reframe your question so an answer of “no” moves the process forward. This technique is a game-changer. I have been applying it for some time in many different environments and it works!

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