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.

The benefits of impending impasses

Ever since Getting to Yes, negotiators everywhere have concluded—rightly based on the title—that getting to yes is the goal of every negotiation. And ever since I’ve been writing about negotiation, I’ve tried to convince negotiators otherwise. For example, I’ve said here and here that getting to no is an acceptable and even a preferable outcome in negotiations. But I’ve previously focused on the benefits of impasses themselves. Let me here expound on the benefits of impending impasses, arguing that even the threat of a stalemate can make life negotiable.

My 12 years of researching and teaching negotiation have often surfaced three benefits of impending impasses. They fundamentally change:

  1. How the negotiators talk to each other: Prior to an impending impasse, negotiators often talk to each other combatively, seeing who can push who off the precipice first. With an impasse impending, though, the negotiators commonly realize that this strategy hasn’t worked very well. More importantly, they realize that their next best alternative is becoming a lot more real—that they might just have to settle for a suboptimal plan B. This realization commonly motivates negotiators to strike a more congenial tone.
  2. What the negotiators are talking about: Prior to an impending impasse, negotiators are commonly fighting about quantitative issues like money. With an impasse impending, negotiators commonly realize that they need to talk about something else. In particular, they often realize they need to take up issues that less adversarial and potentially beneficial to both—which often amount to qualitative issues. I’ve seen it in my negotiation classes many times: Megotiators locked in a bitter debate on price arrive at a stalemate, only to realize that a consideration of the qualitative issues is the only way to avoid a complete meltdown.
  3. Who the negotiators are talking to: Though it’s less common in my negotiation classes, seeing as I assign my students to negotiate with specific partners, impending impasses in real life often inform negotiators that they need to talk to someone else. In real life, this often happens in conversations with front-line customer service representatives, who are not commonly empowered to do what you want, or maybe anything at all. An impending impasse is productive, as it convinces you and sometimes even them that another party is needed.

So here you see that even impending impasses are productive. Bottom line: Embrace rather than avoid disagreements! At least in negotiations, they are often the only thing that will eventually get you to yes.

What, we agree? Compatible issues in a disagreeable world

It sometimes seems that seething disagreements surround us. Crazy passengers punching out flight attendants, angry politicians launching invective, nasty comments following a nice news story about puppies and kittens.

At times like these, it’s easy to forget that we actually agree with each other quite often. In negotiation-speak, we can easily lose sight of the compatible issues—issues on which we completely agree with our counterparts—all around us. To help make life negotiable, let me illustrate through five examples:

  1. We all want to have a good flight/stay/meal. So does the airline/hotel/restaurant. What with the bad service we so often receive, it sometimes seems our interests are completely opposed to the interests of airlines/hotels/restaurants. And it’s true: they all want to save money where they can. More importantly, though, they all want you to come back and/or say nice things to your friends and acquaintances. Our interests are more aligned than unaligned.
  2. We all want to be at a job where we can thrive for the long term. So do our employers. It seems that many employers want to squeeze every ounce of effort from their employees, then spit them out. And some do. More often than not, and in spite of outward appearances, though, many employers would prefer to keep you around for the long-term, if only because it costs so much to replace you (anyone, really).
  3. We all want to minimize the amount of time a contractor spends at our house. So do our contractors. When plumbers dawdle, when electricians take a smoke-break, it seems that they must be padding their paycheck. Right? And maybe some are. But most of the contractors I’ve dealt with are so busy that they’d rather get the job done and move on—if only to make more money, an additional call-out fee often exceeding an additional hour of time.
  4. We all want our kids to be happy. So do our kids. Kids do strange things, some of which seem almost certain to undermine their long-term happiness. In such instances, it’s worth remembering that our kids probably aren’t trying to ruin their own lives. They just don’t understand the consequences or have the benefit of long-term thinking. So arguments that start from the assumption our kids want the same thing we do (and did) will probably work better.
  5. (Most controversially…) We all want as few car repairs as possible. So do our dealers. Does it sometimes seem that your car dealer wants to reconstruct your engine every time you need an oil change? Some dealers undoubtedly propose unnecessary repairs. But many—at least of the manufacturer-owned variety—would probably prefer to do fewer repairs. And the reason resembles the airlines/hotels/restaurants. They can make a lot more money if your first car functions so well it convinces you to buy another from them (or advise your friends to).

These are just a couple of the many common real-world situations when we tend to agree with our counterparts more than we think, if not completely. This list is not intended to cover every airline, employer, contractor, kid, or car dealer—certainly not! Nor is it comprehensive—far from it! It’s merely intended to reiterate that we all actually agree with other once in a while, if not routinely. In a world of deepening polarization, rumbling faultlines, and spiraling incivility, I think it’s a point worth remembering.

Getting to no: Three more reasons that you might want to disagree

Even before the first class in my negotiation courses, I always ask my students to read Getting to Yes. Indisputably the most influential book on negotiations, it breaks down the misconception that negotiations are necessarily combative, presenting four principles to help readers identify win-win solutions instead.

It’s a great book, and that’s why I assign it. But in the first class, I also tell my students that it’s got at least one major problem: its title. Because “getting to yes” implies that the goal of negotiation is reaching agreement. And often it is, but sometimes it’s not. If my students don’t learn to tell the difference, they open themselves up to calamity.

And the same goes for you—and me, and everyone else. Knowing when to get to no—when it’s actually better to walk away from the table instead of reaching a crummy agreement—is essential for making life negotiable. So let’s consider three common situations when you should consider setting your cooperative instincts aside, agreeing to disagree instead:

  1. When you’ve got a better alternative. If you can buy a car for $20,000 at another dealer, don’t pay $21,000 for the same car at this one. Pretty obvious, right? Yes in theory, no in practice. Although we know we shouldn’t agree to something obviously inferior, many of us still do. We can’t resist the sweet smile of dealer sitting across the current table. Or we’d feel guilty abandoning him after taking so much of his time. Or we convince ourselves that it’s not really worth a thousand dollars to deal with another car dealer, even though it definitely is. All of these issues contribute to the agreement bias: our well-known tendency to agree to inferior deals. Luckily, now that you know about it, you won’t have to do it.
  2. When the process or outcome would be questionable. Sometimes you’ve got a perfectly good deal cooking, but something about the whole affair just doesn’t smell right. Perhaps the deal is prefaced upon a conveniently omitted fact. Or it would damage a really important relationship. Or it would make you tremendous amounts of money at a vulnerable party’s else’s expense. Although the temptation is to charge ahead, chances are that you’d eventually land in hot water—with your own conscience if no one else. Another good time to walk away.
  3. When you need more time to decide. Sometimes you’ve got a perfectly good deal cooked up and it seems perfectly ethical, but you’re still not sure you should settle. Why? Because you don’t have a better alternative at the moment but suspect you will soon. Perhaps you found a nice little house and are tempted to make a nice little offer, but you’re secretly afraid that a nicer, bigger house might come on the market if you waited a week. Negotiations are not static occurrences; they take place over time, which means your alternatives can change with time. Although there’s no perfect way to know what the future will bring, few of us having a perfectly clear crystal ball, the suspicion that you might have a better alternative tomorrow is a good reason to get to no today.

These are just three examples, but they highlight an important fact that will make life negotiable: agreements are nice, and reaching them is often a nice goal. But our real goal is achieving outcomes that make us and the people around us happy. When our current negotiation won’t do that, we’re best off walking. In praise of disagreement again!

Have you ever walked away and known you did the right thing?

In praise of disagreement

It wasn’t always this way. Anyone old enough to remember the world before cable news knows that, although we’ve always had our political disagreements, we used to disagree with each other. That is, our politicians and pundits used to vehemently dispute each other’s premises in hopes of knocking down each other’s conclusions. But even a casual follower of politics can see that we don’t really do that anymore. Neither party nor their cable news correlates cares as much about the other side’s conclusions as they do about their own. As a result, they don’t really worry about knocking down or even acknowledging the other side’s premises.

In a word, today’s political environment involves disagreeing past each other more often than disagreeing with each other. To offer an analogy, our political subcultures were once like the Cubs and White Sox grinding out the World Series (this is the year!). They’re now like the Cubs and Bears, grinding out the Series and Super Bowl in parallel—and alone.

In the political domain, these observations are not new. But, in the spirit of making life more negotiable, I do think it’s worth considering what we can learn about our own negotiations from this dynamic.

The two parties in a negotiation are much like the two parties in politics. Their interests often conflict, generating a disagreement they can choose to acknowledge, explore, and unpack. Alternatively, they can choose to justify and reiterate their own interests ad nauseam even while ignoring their counterpart’s interests, disagreeing past each other and effectively denying the existence of a disagreement. In negotiations, if not in politics, I would strongly advise the former approach, as a frank acknowledgment of the disagreement often paves the way for an innovative solution. A refusal to face down the disagreement, in contrast, often paves the way for disaster. Indeed, that approach is not even negotiation, but persuasion.

So why do negotiators so often disagree past each other? The same reason the politicians do: it’s a whole lot easier to ignore the disagreement than tackle it directly. And it’s a surefire way to please a constituency, since the missed opportunity is typically invisible. And it requires a lot less listening, creativity, and maturity—among other critical attributes that few people possess. For negotiators as for politicians, disagreeing past each other is a whole lot simpler. But its simplicity comes at the price of unresolved problems and simmering conflicts.

In short, whether or not our political environment works this way, I would advise all of us as negotiators to try and disagree with each other rather than disagree past each other. Only by doing that can we hope to avoid the fate that so often befalls politicians: promising much and delivering little. In short, I offer this rare ode to disagreement, in hopes that it ultimately paves the way to agreement.