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.

Don’t take no for an answer! (Ask a question)

One of the most common words any negotiator hears is “no.”

“Can you do X?” “No.”

“What if I offered you Y?” “No.”

“Would you consider Z?” “Sorry, no.”

Most negotiators, hearing the fateful word, conclude it’s time to concede. But negotiators who have read my previous posts know that the temptation to concede is actually the opportunity to ask a question, in disguise. Indeed, transforming a no into a question is often the only way to make the no negotiable.

Consider the following three questions, which are particularly pertinent after a no:

  1. Why? When counterparts say no, they’re typically saying no to your position. That is, they’re denying the specific request you just made. They’re not saying no to your underlying interests—not denying their willingness to meet your objectives in some other way. Asking why can often surface the third way. Consider an employee who asks for a salary bump, gets denied, asks why, and learns that such a bump would disrupt established salary bands. But do these salary bands have anything to say about bonuses, benefits, or non-pecuniary rewards? Perhaps not.
  2. What would you recommend? A denial is often a golden opportunity to enlist some help. So you won’t accept my specific request? Could you at least help me solve my underlying problem? Such is the point of this question. And here’s the wonderful thing: the other person, having just crushed your dreams, often feels at least somewhat compelled to lend a helping hand. I recently asked a repairman if his company could fix my jigsaw, received a flat-out no, asked what he would do in the face of a broken jigsaw, and suddenly found him asking 20 questions about my jigsaw and actually offering to take a look at it.
  3. [Same question, later]. Denials are often visceral responses—emotional reactions to a request initially seen as unfair, greedy, or inappropriate. With time, though, many people come to realize that the initial request was actually quite reasonable—that they should’ve actually said yes. Such was the situation when I asked a sofa salesperson about the possibility of free delivery, received a denial, let some time pass, then asked whether she was sure they couldn’t offer free delivery. Full disclosure: she still said no. But I’m pretty sure she left out some other wasteful and useless fees that she otherwise would’ve thrown in, thereby effectively saying yes.

So a “no” is often the start of a conversation, not the end. Treating it as such can turn a depressing denial into a negotiable opportunity.

The real meaning of no

Sometimes it seems like our negotiation counterparts know only one word: “no.” Before we snicker at the size of their vocabulary, though, let us all appreciate the amazing diversity of meaning masked by that one small word. Since negotiators say “no” for all kinds of reasons, many or most of which have nothing to do with negation (but something to do with negotiation), making life negotiable involves understanding the remarkable conceptual richness lurking behind those tiny two letters.

So this post will seek to decode what our counterparts really mean by “no”—in particular, five common messages lurking behind that one common word. While these messages can only scratch the surface of our counterparts’ rich and multifaceted minds, I do hope they demonstrate the importance of looking behind the spoken word in negotiation. So here, without further ado, are five common meanings of no:

  1. You’re talking to the wrong person. People often say no simply because they don’t have the authority to say yes. When talking the cable company, for example, the person who answers the phone is usually not the magical “supervisor” who can somehow extend your promotional rate. In this case, your job is to talk to the magical supervisor—or at least convince the phone answerer to do so on your behalf.
  2. I don’t feel like doing my job today. People often say no because they’re simply too lazy to say yes. I’ve often encountered this one among associates in a big box store. During a recent trip to Walmart, for example, I made the ill-advised decision to try and return a purchase from Walmart.com in-store. “We don’t sell that in the store,” was the unhelpful associate’s response. “Ok,” I answered, “so how can I return a purchase made online—can I return it here and get a gift card to use on the website?” Amazing, that one simple question did enough of the associate’s job that she suddenly found a way to process the return. When the no stems from laziness, your job, sadly, is to do their job for them.
  3. I misunderstood your request. Perhaps the most common reason for saying no is a simple misunderstanding of the request. When you ask for a work colleague’s help with an important task, for example, their no often reflects a simple misconstrual of the task—and especially how much work it requires. In this case, like any case when you want someone to do something, your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to comply.
  4. You haven’t asked enough times. Experienced negotiators sometimes feel like they need to test your mettle by repeatedly rejecting your demands. It’s not that they’re unwilling to accede to those demands—oh no! It’s simply that they want to see how far they can push you before you eventually cave. Consider your last visit to the car dealer—everyone’s last visit to the car dealer. Responding successfully to the repeated no, of course, simply involves repeating the request—politely, perhaps differently, yet repeatedly, until they see undeniably that you’re serious.
  5. This is how my culture negotiates. Whereas we Westerners, on average, tend to negotiate by exchanging information on our needs and desires, negotiators from several Asian nations are thought to negotiate by exchanging and politely rejecting a series of offers. Implicit in the offer exchange, it seems, is an exchange of information about the importance of the various negotiable issues. If you’re negotiating across cultural boundaries, then, a “no” may mean something entirely foreign—namely, that this is my culture’s particular negotiation dance.

Now, in conclusion, I’m not suggesting that no always means otherwise—and certainly not that it means yes. No can certainly mean no. But negotiation research suggests that an initial no often stands in for a plethora of alternative meanings, many of which mean something closer to “try again” or “try something new.” So the overall point is this: the next time you hear a no, disengage your English language skills and consider the no an opening gambit—an invitation to find an alternative pathway to yes.