How to say no in negotiation

Despite the title of negotiation’s seminal text—Getting to Yes—the best negotiators often find themselves saying no. That’s because the goal of negotiation is not agreement—it’s achieving your interests wherever you best can, which is often somewhere else.

But this begs a big “how”: how to say no the right way. Sadly, it’s not as simple as those two letters, which typically convey an unnecessary and unproductive finality.

Since saying no the right way can make life more negotiable, let me offer five suggestions for saying no the right way:

  1. “Not Now”: “No” implies the discussion is over, now and forever. So the other party would be fully justified in deleting your emails and tearing your card from their Rolodex in a flurry of frustration. “Not now” leaves the door open for the future, suggesting that the real problem is not the deal but the timing. So the other party might decide you’re still worth a slot in their inbox and Rolodex.
  2. “I need to think about it / talk to X”: “No” leaves no room for further ideas or realizations, which you just might have when thinking about it or talking to X. Thinking about it or talking to X affords you both the time and the flexibility to change your mind.
  3. “Here’s what concerns me”: “No” provides no information about the underlying reason for the rejection. The other party really has no idea what went wrong. “Here’s what concerns me” provides just that information and keeps the discussion at least temporarily afloat. If they’re smart, they’ll at least consider your concerns before permanently sinking the ship.
  4. “Here’s what I could agree to”: “No” implies you can’t agree to anything about the current proposal—its very mention makes you nauseous. Even more directly than the last response, “Here’s what I could agree to” highlights the contours of a possible agreement. Sure, the other party might not give a hoot. But what’s the risk in giving them one last chance to hoot away?
  5. “I liked when you said…”: During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy famously received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev, one much more acceptable than the other. He deliberately focused on the one he liked better and downplayed the other. Likewise, the next time you’re tempted to meet an ultimatum with a “no,” you can ignore the other party’s ultimatum and focus back on something better they said earlier. Sure, they might still leave. But they might not, and they would have anyway.

In sum, getting to no is just as important as getting to yes, and getting to no the right way is just as important as getting there at all.

Is my negotiation progressing nicely? What, why, and how

How can you know if your negotiation is heading in the right direction? Few complicated questions have simple answers, but let me try to make this one as simple as possible in hopes of making life negotiable.

If your negotiation is progressing nicely, the discussion should generally answer the following three questions, in the following order:

  1. What? Most productive negotiations start with an examination of the basic situation, the facts (actual, not alternative). As in, what are we actually discussing here, and what’s the context? Seems obvious to get the facts out of the way first, but surprisingly many negotiators don’t, preferring to launch into overt conflict before clarifying the premises. (Ask our friends in Washington.) If your negotiation doesn’t surface the facts first, chances are it won’t produce much of anything useful later.
  2. Why? Most productive negotiations eventually progress from a discussion of what we’re talking about to a discussion of why those issues matter to each side. Don’t get to the reasons for the facts as we see them—and surprisingly many don’t—and chances are you’ll get mired in a pointless debate over each side’s positions and their utter irreconcilability. We’ll get stuck at me wanting a raise and you giving me zilch without ever exploring creative ways to reduce my commuting costs, reimburse my education, or obtain a bonus when I bring in the promised business.
  3. How? Most productive negotiations eventually move on from each party’s priorities to a discussion of prospective solutions. Having understood what’s important to each side, the negotiators obviously need to consider how to reconcile those priorities. If your negotiation never gets there—and surprisingly many don’t—and you’ll have a great and deep understanding of the situation and each other. But that’s it. You’ll leave the room scratching your head about what in the world was just decided and what to do next. Ever leave a meeting with just that feeling?

Now, before taking this what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness too far, a clarification is in order: Negotiation, like any form of problem-solving, is an iterative process. You may move on to the why questions and then discover you didn’t understand the what well enough. That’s fine! As long as you eventually get back to why, your negotiation is still progressing nicely.

What’s not fine is skipping steps. Since understanding underlying priorities (why) is hard and often a bit awkward, for example, many people prefer to skip right from what to how. Do that, and you’re likely to surface a solution that seems to fix the situation but doesn’t really solve anyone’s underlying problem. Other people—the go-getters, solution-seekers, extreme Type-A’s—may try to jump right to solutions. Do that, and your solutions won’t even fit the surface-level situation, let alone the underlying problem.

With those clarifications in mind, I would humbly offer the what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness. Answer those questions in that general order, and you’ll probably find your negotiation progressing nicely. Skip some of those questions or don’t answer any of them, and you’re likely to get the personal equivalent of a shutdown.

Should I ask for more? Three clues you might want to negotiate

One of the toughest negotiation challenges is deciding whether to negotiate at all—whether to settle for a particular portion of our own lot or launch into a negotiation to obtain more. Should I press the car dealer for a bigger discount, my colleague for an alternate meeting time, or my kids to try harder on their math homework?

In my never-ending quest to make life negotiable, though, let me offer three simple clues that, at least in combination, suggest it might be worth negotiating rather than settling.

You might want to consider negotiating if:

  1. The current outcome stinks: Most obviously, a negotiation might be warranted if you’re exasperated with the current situation. You’re peeved at the car dealer’s exorbitant offer. Your colleague’s refusal to do their job sends smoke out your ears. If the current arrangement stinks, you might consider negotiating. Importantly, though, this rule should not prompt you to negotiate everything. If you’re just a little bit inconvenienced by the current situation, you should at least check the remaining criteria before negotiating, lest you turn into one of those people who negotiates everything and thus alienates everyone.
  2. You don’t know the other side’s preferences: Assuming you’re dissatisfied with the current arrangement and have an alternative arrangement in mind, you should consider whether you have any idea how your counterpart would react to the alternative. Sometimes, we know well enough: We all know the car dealer would resist a further discount and our coworker would resist any task requiring even a modicum of effort. But in many of life’s negotiable situations, we actually have no clue: We’d really prefer to meet tomorrow but don’t know the other person’s availability. We’d really prefer our favorite restaurant to another night of meatloaf, but we haven’t assessed our spouse’s thoughts on dining out. If you’re dissatisfied with the status quo and don’t know your counterpart’s feelings about the alternative, you might consider negotiating.
  3. The costs of negotiation are low: Sometimes, the costs of further negotiations are extraordinary. As a totally random and made-up example, another day of pointlessly stonewalling will cost 800,000 employees and legions of contractors another round of paychecks and possibly send the U.S economy to the brink of recession. But in many of our more mundane situations, a bit more negotiating costs us nothing in money and a negligible amount of time. Is it really so costly to give the other contractor one more day to reply to our email, or visit the other Chevy dealer down the road? In comparison to the price of whatever we’re buying, probably not.

Ultimately, deciding whether to negotiate versus sit on our laurels requires a great deal of judgment. But hopefully these three clues help you home in on the situations most rife for a deal.

Negotiating the holidays: Five common negotiations in a magical time of year

With the holidays fully upon us, I thought it might be useful to recap some negotiations you’re likely to face amidst the festivities—along with some research-based suggestions for making them negotiable. I’m pretty sure you’ll face at least one of the following negotiations over the next few weeks:

  1. Deciding where to spend the holidays. Many of us will have a robust discussion with our better halves as to where to spend the holidays—and for how long. For some suggestions on avoiding a less-than-festive meltdown in the process, you might want to review this post.
  2. Dealing with annoying seatmates. Many of us will encounter fellow holiday fliers who…how shall we put this…have a slightly different take on in-flight decorum. For some suggestions on keeping the skies friendly, check out this post.
  3. Finding time for family. Many of us will need to physically pry ourselves away from our desks to spend the desired time with family and friends. For some tips on negotiating a reasonable work-life balance when it’s needed most, you might want to review this post.
  4. Counteracting predatory retailers. When purchasing our presents, many of us will encounter amazing deals. Others will encounter “amazing” deals—deals that retailers would love for you to misinterpret as such. To recognize and counteract a particularly pernicious version of this trap, consider the following post and paper.
  5. Giving appropriate and reacting appropriately to gifts. It’s the season of giving and receiving, but many people struggle to devise the appropriate gift or react appropriately when they receive the annual fruitcake. So consider reviewing the following posts on giving and receiving for some insights from the negotiations literature.

And now, here’s ho-ho-hoping your holiday becomes a bit more negotiable.

Did you have a “good negotiation?” Fatigue, not frustration

How do you know you’ve had a good negotiation—you’ve gotten the best deal possible without obliterating the relationship? In the real world, outside the confines of a negotiation class with everyone’s agreement posted for everyone else to see, the truth is: you won’t. You’ll never really know how well you did versus however well you could’ve done. Sure, if you happened to slam-dunk it or bankrupt your company, you’ll probably have a sense. But in most negotiations, whose outcomes lie somewhere in the mushy middle, you’ll always walk away wondering.

So should we all utterly abandon the effort to assess our own negotiations post hoc? Before we go quite so far, let me suggest a simple heuristic that can still offer some clues to your success, thereby making the post-negotiation process negotiable.

The heuristic, surprisingly, is this: Fatigued, not frustrated.

What in the world could I mean? Fundamentally, a “good negotiation” entails sticking to your aspirations, pushing for your interests, and creatively attacking a seemingly intractable set of positions. That’s tiring! If you’ve really done all that, you’ll probably feel quite fatigued—and you should.

But wait, does that mean that the best negotiations are the most unpleasant ones—that we should experience our most successful deal-making as a flurry of frustration? No! Fatigue is far from a synonym for frustration—we can all walk away from social situations feeling sleepy but willing to sleep it off and send a thank-you note. Instead, frustration is probably a sign somebody obliterated the relationship.

But wait #2, why shouldn’t we walk away from our best negotiations feeling happy, wanting to high-five our counterpart and buy them a beer? Because if you feel that way, chances are you folded too quickly and easily relative to your aspirations or interests—or didn’t define them well in the first place.

But wait #3, does all fatigue = a good negotiation and all happiness = a bad negotiation? Of course not. You might feel fatigued because your neighbor’s dog was howling all night or, more germanely, because you just got schooled by a counterpart who totally outsmarted and exhausted you at the same time. And you might feel happy because your neighbor’s dog finally shut up at 10 pm or, more germanely, because you somehow found a magical counterpart who was shockingly amenable to your wildest dreams.

So I’m not suggesting a 1:1 relationship between fatigue and successful negotiation. I’m simply suggesting a heuristic than can help you play Sherlock Holmes on your own post hoc feelings and reactions. So the next time you walk away from a negotiation feeling fatigued, relish the feeling! Or at least entertain the possibility that you performed quite well. But don’t confuse frustration for fatigue and somehow elevate relationship obliteration to a virtue. And don’t assume that overwhelming feelings of joy necessarily flow from the very best deals. They don’t.

Three cheers for fatigue!

Practicing for negotiations: Why not?

We practice meticulously for every important event in our lives. Whether it’s a presentation, a soccer game, or an interview, if we value the outcome, we typically spend some serious time practicing (e.g., by dry-running, scrimmaging, or mock-interviewing).

So it’s curious that most of us devote so little time—approximately none at all—to practicing for our most important negotiations. Perhaps we’ll give some passing thought to our strategy for the car dealer or even use the BRAIN acronym to structure our thinking. But mental preparation is not the same thing as active practicing, and precious few of us will ever consider the latter.

But why??? Do we all consider ourselves so much better at negotiating than presenting, shooting a soccer ball, or detailing our greatest strength? Do we all feel foolish enlisting the help of a make-believe car dealer? Do we not even know where to start?

I honestly don’t know.

Since practice is the only thing that can make negotiations perfect (or at least negotiable), however, I’ll assume it’s the last one and urge you to start here:

Pick a trustworthy friend, perhaps an aspiring thespian. Bring them up to speed on every last aspect of the negotiation and your likely counterpart. Then, actually pretend you’re negotiating, making sure to focus your role-playing on the following topics:

  1. Opening and setting the right tone. As in first dates, the first minute of a negotiation sets the tone for most of the subsequent relationship. Will this be a cooperative or combative discussion? A problem-solving exercise or a cage match? Whatever the tone you intend to set, you’d better practice setting it to follow through when the heat is on.
  2. What you’ll share and won’t. In every negotiation, you’ll have to share certain nuggets of information to get to yes. And you’ll have to avoid a discussion of other topics like the plague—your bottom line for example. You need to practice sharing the former and avoiding the latter tactfully.
  3. Responding to tough questions. Your counterpart may well ask you to share the information you really don’t want to. They may also ask questions that tempt you to lie. You need to hear yourself concocting an answer that doesn’t give away the farm or your ethical (and/or legal) compass.
  4. Rebooting the conversation. At some point, most tough negotiations get mired in a positional debate. “I want X!” “I want Y!” And X is typically the opposite of Y. If you hope to rise above such a debate in real-time, you need a practiced strategy for changing the conversation. A strategic suggestion to take a break or a blue-sky question about an entirely different topic?
  5. Walking away if you have to. It’s kind of like the safety demonstration on the airplane. You really don’t want to think about it and hope you never have to remember it, but you’d better make sure to understand it. If a negotiation disaster sets in and you can’t find a way to best your BATNA, you need a practiced plan for walking away gracefully rather than falling into a tailspin.

In sum, for all the same reasons you play a scrimmage rather than fielding a new soccer team just before the game, we should all practice negotiating rather that discovering our negotiation prowess (or lack thereof) in real-time. If nothing else, consider it an opportunity to indulge your inner thespian.

Win-win or win-whatever? Setting our sights just a little bit lower in negotiations

Why is it that most people—even those who take (or teach) negotiation classes—still find it hard to negotiate? I’m here to argue for one of many reasons: the possibility that in many situations, most of us set our sights just a little too high.

Anyone who’s taken (or taught) a negotiation class can summarize the course in a single phrase: “win-win.” But now let me convince you of a less ambitious but potentially more common and attainable goal that can still make life negotiable: win-whatever.

A story to explain:

My two daughters recently visited a fine-dining establishment—let’s call it Chick-pat-E—both receiving the same book as a giveaway with their kids meal. Arriving at home, one put their book on the table, and the other let theirs fall to the floor. Which is which, no one knows.

Later that day, my six-year-old arrived at the table, claimed the table-book as her own, and started to read it. My three-year-old, witnessing said events, developed uncontrollable fits of rage. “That’s my book!” she insisted immediately, repeatedly, and with increasing levels of agitation. Now, I had no idea whose book was whose, but I leaned over to my six-year-old, winked at her, and asked her to be the “big girl” by accepting the (identical) book on the floor. And my six-year-old, to her great credit and with the benefit of three years, begrudgingly recognized that it really didn’t matter. So she gave the table-book to the three-year-old and accepted the floor-book as her own. A win for my three-year-old and a whatever for my six-year-old.

Now what would a win-win have looked like? Perhaps the three-year-old could’ve claimed the table-book today and the six-year-old could’ve claimed it tomorrow? Or the three-year-old could’ve gotten first dibs at the next Chick-pat-E giveaway? Or the six-year-old could’ve gotten the table-book but gifted one of her other books to the three-year-old? All interesting and innovative solutions but hard to execute in the presence of an increasingly agitated three-year-old. A win-win in this case would’ve been awfully difficult.

Reflecting on the story, is it possible that many of us find it hard to negotiate because we’re shooting just a bit too high? Are we ambitiously aiming for win-win when a win-whatever would really do? As great as win-wins can be—and I really believe it—I’d suggest that win-whatevers are often much easier to find and execute. And I do suggest, in my negotiation classes, that they’re just as important for getting to yes. So, the next time you’re struggling to identify a win-win way of divvying up housework, deciding on work responsibilities, or allocating giveaways from Chick-pat-E, consider setting your sights just a little bit lower—not way lower on conflict or avoidance or win-loss. Just a little bit lower on win-whatever. I think you’ll start to see indifference as a virtue.