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:
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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?
- “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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 September, I tackled the thorny problem of where to spend the holidays. Briefly, I suggested that fighting with your spouse about which family to visit (a distributive strategy) is less productive than figuring out a way to satisfy both of you (an integrative strategy).
Well, suppose you gave my suggestion a try—you offered to spend Christmas with your spouse’s family in San Francisco if she’d spend Easter in Chicago with yours—but she wasn’t too interested. If only she’d read these incredibly useful posts! Regardless, you’re now thinking of defaulting to what I originally called a “50/50 person split”: you spend Christmas in Chicago, while she heads to San Francisco. In effect, you’re considering walking away from this particular bargaining table. And the tenor surrounding your dinner table is starting to reflect it.
The impending holiday impasse is unpleasant, but still negotiable! In this post, I’ll discuss five simple questions to ask yourself before giving up on this or any negotiation. Though they won’t necessarily prevent you from giving up, they’ll at least help to ensure that impasse is the best option. So here go the questions:
- Have I asked why? In other words, have you explored the reasons behind her preferences? Why did she flat-out decline your offer to split the holidays? If you asked, she might tell you that her brother will visit San Francisco for Easter but not Christmas, which opens up the possibility of making her happy by reversing the order of the cities in your offer.
- Have I said why? In other words, have you communicated the reasons behind your preferences? Perhaps your mother is having an operation around Easter, and you really need to be in Chicago to help her. If you said so, perhaps your spouse would realize that your collective Easter plans are much more important to you than her, especially since her brother’s visiting both of you later this year.
- Am I angry? In other words, is emotion propelling you toward an impasse? Few decisions are best made angry, and negotiation decisions are no exception. If you’re angry, I’d suggest ratification as a means of justifying a short break.
- Do we have to decide now? Even better than a short break is an extended break in which both parties ponder their options. No, you can’t wait too long in the face of rising airfares, nor is procrastination generally a great strategy. But in the face of an impending impasse, it’s usually worth the wait in order to collect your thoughts.
- Is the alternative really better? In other words, is the 50/50 person split (your BATNA) really preferable to the worst deal you could reach with your spouse? Suppose she’s still insisting on both of you spending both holidays in San Francisco. While that makes you angry, is it worse than spending Christmas (and probably Easter too) apart? Perhaps so, and then an impasse is justified. But the point is to ask the question, as we often impasse out of anger even though the alternative is actually worse (previously called hubris).
So the bottom line is this: Before walking away from this or any other negotiation table, make sure you’ve asked and said why, taken the time to diffuse your anger and weigh your options, and verified that the alternative is preferable. If you’ve skipped any of those steps, it’s worth spending a little more time at table, if only to make the holidays that much merrier.
How do you decide whether to walk away from a negotiation?