Why 'No' May Be the Answer You Want to Hear

We all like to hear a resounding “yes” in response to our questions. But sometimes, a “no” can get us what we really want.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #413

No Means Safety

No works because No means No. We learn to say No when we’re two years old. We say No to assert our independence. No protects our boundaries, our territory, our Fortress of Superness. When we say No, we feel safe. And when they get the chance to say No, so do they. 

This is why getting them to say No enables exploration. They’ve said No. They’ve protected their boundaries. They feel safe—indeed, they are safe!—so they can relax, open up, and communicate.

Use Framing to Elicit No

Get them to say No by asking questions that let them answer No. One way is by framing questions the right way. Think of a question that you know how your nemesis will answer. Then ask it so they have to answer No.

If you know they want to be paid in cash, you can ask a question that confirms it. You could ask, “Do you want to be paid in cash?” Ask that and they’ll answer Yes. Or you could ask, “Is it a problem to be paid in cash?” To that, they’ll answer No.

Every No they say will make them feel a bit safer and willing to open up a little more.

That’s a low-stakes No; it borders on the logistical. Also ask questions with higher emotional stakes. You’ll get Nos with more emotional resonance. “Do you want your project to fail, so you get fired, drink yourself senseless, and die alone in a gutter?” They’ll give you a higher-stakes No.

Every No they say will make them feel a bit safer and willing to open up a little more. Phrase your questions so they answer No. 

Ask About Their Feelings to Get No

If you don’t have a question that they’ll answer No, ask about their feelings. But get it wrong. Ask them a question that deliberately misinterprets their feelings.

You know your arch-enemy Chaos McBoomboom hates negotiating. So you say, “You seem like you’re enjoying these negotiations.” Chaos says “No, I’m not.” And… McBOOM! You have your No.

If Chaos is smiling and cheerful, you can say “You seem upset and troubled.” Chaos smiles and says, “No, not really.” You have your No. Now that Chaos feel safe, you can ask, “Really? There’s nothing going wrong?” Chaos says, “No.” And then you say, “That sounds fascinating. Tell me about it.” 

Re-engage Colleagues Using No

No has other uses. Powerful No questions suggest you’re ready to walk away. You can force someone’s hand. If a colleague hasn’t responded in a while, you can re-engage them with a simple email. Just send along Chris’s one-liner: “Have you given up on this project?”

People will answer by saying something like, “No, no. I’ve just been busy.” Then they’ll re-engage. If they do say Yes, they’ve given up, you need to know that, and can talk to them about why. 

When you hear No, don’t take it as anti-Yes. It might mean “Wait until I decide,” or “I’m not comfortable with that.” Accept that. Help your negotiating counter-party say No early and often. And when you hear that No, it’s time for the negotiation to begin. They’ll feel safer, and you know where their limits are. Now use the safer space to open a conversation and find creative ways to bring the negotiation to a successful conclusion.

Do you have superb, amazing superhero-level powers of negotiations? If not, listen to my full interview with Chris Voss. And remember: you don’t want to miss the chance to read his book, Never Split The Difference.

This is Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. I run programs to help people live Extraordinary Careers. If you want to know more, visit SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and Have a Great Life!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT. 

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