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Beware “Yes”, Master “No” – Study Notes

“No” starts the negotiation

Let me paint a scenario we’ve all experienced: You’re at home, just before dinner, and the phone rings. It is, no surprise, a telemarketer. He wants to sell you magazine subscriptions, water filters, frozen Argentine beef—to be honest, it doesn’t matter, as the script is always the same. After butchering your name, and engaging in some disingenuous pleasantries, he launches into his pitch.

My fascination with “No” in all its beautiful nuance began with a conversation I had a few months before my negotiation career began. I started my career with the Bureau as a member of the FBI SWAT team in the Pittsburgh Division but after nearly two years I was transferred to New York, where the FBI attached me to the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). It was an amazing post: We spent our days and nights tracking suspected terrorists, investigating their cells, and assessing whether or how they might strike. We were untying knots of human anger in the midst of America’s biggest city, making life-and-death decisions on who was dangerous and who was just blowing hot air. The work fascinated me.

Persuade in their world

I’d like to present you with a guy named Joe Businessman as he readies himself for a negotiation. You’ve met him before. He’s the prepared type, with all his Getting to yes strategies written out and memorized. And he’s more than ready to unleash them on the guy across the table. Joe pauses to look at his expensive suit in the mirror, fantasizing about the impressive things he’ll say and the fancy charts and graphs that’ll back up those things and leave his counterpart—his opponent—vanquished and in defeat. He is Russell Crowe in Gladiator. He is The Man.

“No” is protection

Think back to the telemarketer at the beginning of this chapter. The obvious reply to his question—“Do you enjoy a nice glass of water?”—is “Yes.” But all you want to do is scream, “No!” After a question like that you just know the rest of the phone call is going to be painful.

That, in a nutshell, distills the inherent contradictions in the values we give “Yes” and “No.” Whenever we negotiate, there’s no doubt we want to finish with a “Yes.” But we mistakenly conflate the positive value of that final “Yes” with a positive value of “Yes” in general. And because we see “No” as the opposite of “Yes,” we then assume that “No” is always a bad thing.

Email magic: how never to be ignored again

There’s nothing more irritating than being ignored. Being turned down is bad, but getting no response at all is the pits. It makes you feel invisible, as if you don’t exist. And it’s a waste of your time. We’ve all been through it: You send an email to someone you’re trying to do business with and they ignore you. Then you send a polite follow-up and they stonewall you again. So what do you do? You provoke a “No” with this one-sentence email.

Have you given up on this project?

The point is that this one-sentence email encapsulates the best of “No”- oriented questions and plays on your counterpart’s natural human aversion to loss. The “No” answer the email demands offers the other party the feeling of safety and the illusion of control while encouraging them to define their position and explain it to you.

Just as important, it makes the implicit threat that you will walk away on your own terms. To stop that from happening—to cut their losses and prove their power—the other party’s natural inclination is to reply immediately and disagree. No, our priorities haven’t changed. We’ve just gotten bogged down.

Lastly Comment

That’s death for a good negotiator, who gains their power by understanding their counterpart’s situation and extracting information about their counterpart’s desires and needs. Extracting that information means getting the other party to feel safe and in control. And while it may sound contradictory, the way to get there is by getting the other party to disagree, to draw their own boundaries, to define their desires as a function of what they do not want.

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