Negotiation: Why “No” might be better than “Yes”


What if your job is to negotiate against the world’s most dangerous people on a day-to-day basis? And your negotiation skills decides whether people or die. 

I think negotiation is important too (our salary is largely depended on how well we negotiate) but not that important…

The Art Of Negotiation

Negotiation is about quickly establishing relationships and getting people to think and talk together. A good negotiator is one who is prepared for any surprises. A great negotiator is one that uses his or her skills to reveal the surprises that are certain to be found.

80% of negotiation is won in your head before you are even at the table:

  • Assumptions are hypotheses to be tested during to negotiation
  • Negotiation is a process of discovery. Focus on being the one to discover the most information
  • Slow. It. Down. Going too fast makes people feel like they’re not being heard.

These are just some of the interesting insights I’ve seen from this book “Never Split the Difference”. It’s written by one of the FBI’s top hostage negotiators, Chris Voss. A job he held for 25 years. He’s negotiated with some of the world’s most dangerous people. This book is filled with fascinating anecdotes about a job where negotiation is life and death.

Interesting insights I’ve gained

The tactics within this book seem to go against what we know. For example, one of the tactics we often hear about is priming someone to say “Yes”. It’s the old “foot in the door” technique where you work on getting easy “yes”-es so that people are more primed to say “Yes” when you get to the bigger request.

Chris turns that on its head and says this isn’t true these days because, “People are too primed now to say ‘yes’.” It’s more important to get them to say “No” first. For example, by asking them a question like, ‘Do you want this project to fail?’

Nobody wants the project to fail, so they will say “No”. You don’t want the project to fail either. That’s common ground for both of you.

Why does this work?

We all want to be “nice”. But this niceness is a mask we use in our less confrontational Asian society. We’re polite so we can get through the grind of our daily existence. Niceness is a way of greasing the wheels of society.

In cruder terms, a smile and a nod might indicate “I can’t believe what this ass is saying!” as much as it means “I agree with you.”

And that’s death for a good negotiator!

The whole point of negotiation is to understand the other party’s needs and wants. As Chris puts it, getting them to disagree helps  with this process of identification. Getting them to say “No” lets us know their boundaries. Because we know what they don’t want.

Why  “No” is better than “Yes”?

Getting a “Yes” is the final goal of a negotiation. But aiming for it from the start can come across as insincere and pretentious.  We’ve been conditioned to think of “No” as a failure. That it’s a rejection of what we’re proposing. But most of the time, it really means, “I’m not comfortable with that right now.”

Have you ever experienced someone rejecting your request in the beginning, and then saying “Yes” to the same request a month later?  I’ve had this happen to me more than once. It always surprises me when it happens. Someone saying “No” to you right now, does not mean that they’re going to say “No” forever.

Chris says that saying “No” makes a speaker feel safe. They feel more in control. By saying what they don’t want, they’ve defined their space and feel the confidence and comfort to listen to you. That’s why “Is now a bad time to talk?” is always better than “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Another method you can try to get your counterpart to listen and engage with you is by forcing them into a “No.” This means intentionally mislabelling their desires or emotions with a ridiculous, leading question. Something like, “It seems like you want this project to fail.” The only way they can answer this question is with a no. This forces them to rethink their commitment to the project.

This line of questioning can also be used on a business partner who’s ignoring you. “Have you given up on this project?” works wonders because it suggests that you are ready to walk away. If they’re still committed to the project, they have to engage with you.

My final thoughts after reading this book

Negotiation and persuasion is not about how smooth or forceful of a talker you are. It’s about convincing the other party that the solution you want is something they came out with themselves. Humans are ruled by emotions so don’t try to force your logic on them. Always ask question that opens more paths to your goals.

At the start of a negotiation, everyone is going to have their own set of objectives and motivations. The social niceties that we indulge in, the little “yes”es and “I agree”s that we throw out at the beginning are just that, pleasantries that don’t mean a thing. It’s can’t substitute true understanding. When you’ve convinced someone that you truly understand their dreams and feelings, then everything becomes possible.

I highly recommend that you give this book a read. It’s one of the more insightful books about negotiation I’ve read  and filled with interesting excerpts on one of the most high pressure jobs in the world.

[amazon asin=0062407805&template=iframe image2]

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  1. As one who deals with negotiations daily, let me caution against opening with a ‘no’ mentality. Once the other party puts up wall of mental resistance, it will be difficult to dismantle it

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, I do agree with you. Just that Chris Voss offers an interesting alternative

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