Add “No” to Your Negotiation Toolkit

Imagine you want to sell life insurance to a client. As part of your pitch, you might say, “Don’t you want to make sure your loved ones are left with some financial peace of mind?” The client will probably answer, “Yes, of course.” With this response, the client is probably thinking that they know they need to put life insurance on their radar, but still aren’t ready to focus on it.

Now, what if you said this instead: “Is it a good idea to leave your loved ones with zero financial security if anything were to happen to you?” Suddenly, the client is horrified and responds with, “No, of course not!” Your question prompts them to think of horrible scenarios in which they are gone, and their loved ones have zero financial security. The client’s “no” response evoked more thought and emotion than the “yes” one. You are able to capture the client’s interest in the insurance you provide.

While “no” seems like it has a negative connotation and should be avoided during negotiation, the opposite is often true. The simple word “no” holds a great deal of power, and when utilized correctly, can be used to strategically maneuver your negotiation to a spot where you hold the control. Whether you’re talking about a critical business deal, trying to avoid litigation, or even negotiating with your business partner or a client, the goal is to change your mindset so that that “no” becomes a cue to break out different negotiation tools, rather than end the negotiation. Read on to find out three useful strategies to wield the answer “no” in your negotiation.

1. Ask “No” Questions

Sometimes people don’t like to say “yes” at first because it involves too much commitment. For example, if you get an email from a colleague asking you to attend a function, accepting the invitation involves a lot of steps. First you need to check your calendar. Then you want to find out how much it costs and see if you want to commit. Is the location far or annoying to get to? What if you get really busy at work that day? Will you be dreading the event for weeks to come? It’s far easier just to say no. Now, say you get an email asking, “Are you against attending the function next week?” Suddenly, you’re not being asked to commit to anything at all. It’s easy to respond now and say, “No, I’m not against it.”

Some more “no” questions include asking, “Do you disagree with this?” rather than “Do you agree with this?” and asking, “Is this a ridiculous idea?” rather than, “Is this a good idea?”  By deliberately asking questions that seek a “no” reply, you’re setting the conversation up to keep going with further communication.

Another example is if two business partners are negotiating the breakup of their business. Imagine you’re one of the partners and you receive this email: “Are you willing to consider this option?” and the partner then proceeds to discuss that option. You’re going to need some time to think about it before replying. However, if you received a question like this: “Are you opposed to considering this option?” then it would be easy to reply quickly that day to say “No, I’m not opposed to potentially discussing it.” This way, you’ve given no commitment with your reply to consider the option – but the conversation can continue.

2. Hint at an Exaggerated Worst-Case Scenario

This strategy still involves asking a question and hoping for a “no,” but it involves making your counterpart think about the worst thing that can happen. For example, when you ask permission to do something hoping for a “yes” you might say: “Can I get that project to you tomorrow instead of today please?” This might get you a stern lecture on time management and deadlines.

However, what if you asked, “Would it be absolutely detrimental to the company if I handed in the project tomorrow?” Of course, with this question, you want them to say “no.” With the “no” question, you force your counterpart to think: Would it actually be detrimental for the company if I don’t get the project until tomorrow? I mean, not really…

So now, all because you asked a “no” question that forced the other person to think about the exaggerated consequences of what you’re asking – you get to hand in your project a day later.

3. “No” as a Correction

This strategy involves saying something that you think is false to confirm the truth with a “no” to gather information. For example, if a customer wants to negotiate their rate and you want to find out if they’ve reached out to other competitors, you could say, “You must have found someone else who says they can provide this service at a better rate.” Of course, you don’t want them to say “yes” here – you’re hoping for the “no” response as a correction to your false claim. If they respond with “no,” then you can be sure you’re still in the running, but there’s some underlying concern about the product or service you are providing. (And if they say yes, well, that’s helpful information too.)

After hearing the “no” correction following a false claim, you can gather information through active listening skills to assuage their fears and gain a new client (read more about how to do this here.) By using this strategy, the “no” can help you ascertain why the customer wanted to negotiate their rate in the first place.

Think of a negotiation like a puzzle you need to solve that when put together, reveals a message. Questions that lead to “yes” answers right away can perhaps help you solve the puzzle quickly and easily; however, the message on the completed puzzle will be too zoomed in. You won’t be able to read it. “No” answers, however, lead to a completed puzzle that captures the whole message.

So, the next time you’re in a negotiation, you don’t have to dread hearing the answer “no.” In fact, you can purposefully seek the answer out using the strategies above to shake things up in a negotiation – giving you the edge you need to succeed.

Read more about using “no” in negotiation in former FBI top hostage negotiator Chris Voss’s book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It (HarperCollins 2016).