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.

Should I negotiate despite a certain no?

As my last post suggested, the first clue you might want to negotiate instead of settling for a suboptimal outcome is dissatisfaction with the status quo. But what if that dissatisfaction is accompanied by absolute certainty that the other party will reject any alternative proposal? Surely you shouldn’t negotiate when you’re certain the other party will say no. Or should you?

You should at least consider it. Indeed, for reasons like the following five, negotiating in the face of a certain no is one of the least appreciated and most powerful ways to make life negotiable:

  1. You make a deposit in the no bank: Most people don’t like being disagreeable all the time—even stubborn people and your organization’s biggest bureaucrats. So every no they give you creates a liability in their psychological no bank—an increasingly acute sense that they should probably repay your persistence with a yes at some point. Put simply, the more no’s a particular person gives you, the higher the probability they’ll give you a yes the next time.
  2. You learn about the other side: In the process of saying no, some naysayers will grace you with a why not. That is, they’ll tell you why it’s so difficult to agree to this particular proposal. And the why not often contains some of the most critical information you’ll ever receive in an organization. Knowing that requests framed a particular way or lacking a particular individual’s blessing don’t succeed in this firm will surely make you savvier the next time.
  3. You might get a no on that but a yes on something else: In the process of saying no, other naysayers may grace you with a but. That is, they’ll say no to your main request but spontaneously offer to do something else that still solves your problem. And at the end of the day, who cares how they solve your problem!?! As long as they do, you’re golden.
  4. You communicate the importance of the issue: Negotiation is not just a process for attaining your goals. It’s a form of communication by which you inform the people around you what you really care about. Ask your superiors about a particular issue enough times and the good ones among them are likely to process your passion for the issue and find a way to work with you the next time it matters.
  5. You’re never actually certain. Sure, you might feel certain about an impending no. But humans being human beings, they often utterly surprise us—particularly by gracing us with an unexpected yes. Maybe they’re feeling unusually cheery today, trying to honor their New Year’s resolution to act agreeably, or hoping to lower the liabilities in their favor bank. Or maybe they just chickened out with the no on the tip of their tongue. Whatever the cause of their shocking amenability, you can be certain that you’re never as certain as you think.

But wait—am I encouraging you, via these points, to negotiate everything all the time? No, as my previous post makes clear, I’m not. All I’m saying in the current post is that the expectation of a no is not a sufficient reason to abandon the possibility of a negotiation. Sometimes a no is just a way-station on the long and winding road to yes.

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.