How to Flip "No" into Yes in Four Jujitsu-like Moves

Some of the most powerful, successful, admired people in the world seem to have something in common: they ask constantly, creatively, compassionately, and gracefully.

And to be sure: when you ask, there’s always the possibility of a no on the other side of the request. If we don’t allow for that no, we’re not actually asking, we’re either begging or demanding. But it is the fear of the no that keeps so many of our mouths sewn tightly shut.

- Amanda Palmer 

Start with you - embrace no. 

"But, wait," you might say, "Isn't the whole point of negotiating getting to yes?" 
Well, no, actually it isn't. The point is to engage in a conversation that could lead to agreement. Sometimes, no agreement is the best outcome (Case in point one and two). 

The no you should embrace isn't necessarily baked into a flat-out rejection. Instead, it's baked into your core values, your interests, or what I like to call the "silent movers of positions." 

Simply put, it means that when you're clear on what you want, you're clear on what you don't want. No maps out the contours of your desires and gives you the motivation to take a stand.

Take, for example --  

"No, I don't want to stay in this crummy job that crushes my soul and awakens my homicidal tendencies."

"No, I don't want to lowball myself ever again, because I have to provide for my diabetic pet poodle." 

"No, I don't want to give away my time and expertise for free, because I just ain't got time for that kind of nonsense." 

Embracing your no will give you the power that comes from having clarity on what you want, what you don't want and why, so you can ask with courage. 

So...what's the worst thing that can happen if you make your brave ask?

The clichéd response is, "They can say no." But is it really?

Here are a few worse things I can think of: 

  • Limp "yeah-yeah, sure" and no follow-through - a counterfeit yes. Empty promises that lead nowhere. 
  • No response - a common trap if you negotiate via email. You have no idea if the recipient swiped right on your email, or if they fell into a manhole. 
  • Silent backlash - they don't tell you what they think. Instead, their passive-aggressive behavior exudes anger and resentment, not cooperation. 

Counterfeit yes, dead-end and subterfuge are worse than a no. But if they say no and they're still talking to you, you have a negotiation partner who is ready to voice their objections. 

This is good, because It's an opportunity. 

Yep, you read that right. No is an opportunity to uncover objections, misunderstandings and fears so you can address them. An opportunity to pivot, reframe and ask again. An opportunity that can lead to a genuine yes and follow-through. 

Consider the psychology of no: 

  • Protection from risk and change - which reflects bias for loss aversion 
  • Autonomy - a universal psychological need and something people go to war to keep

After saying no, they're feeling safe and comfortable because they are protected and their need for autonomy has been met. Chances are they're now more open to sharing information and hearing you out than if they gave you the dreaded "yeah-yeah, sure" (in which case, they've probably stopped listening to you awhile ago).  

So what do you do now? 

First, pause and hold your judgment. 

Between getting no and hearing why, it will be very tempting to go into reaction mode, to make assumptions or to get defensive. Your brain is wired for storytelling, so the natural inclination is to fill the gap in your understanding with fiction.

"They're saying no, because they have it in for me. What a jerk!" 

"F#$*! I'll never make it without that yes. I'm doomed." 

Resist the temptation to get wrapped up in your stories. Instead, pause. Remember that no is part of the process. 

Second, revisit your no. Do you still want to proceed? 

Years ago, I once negotiated my severance agreement when I left a job in finance. When I told him that I was leaving, the CEO objected by saying, "Oh, but you dress so well."

Instead of my unique skills and contributions, I was reduced to my looks and gender, and he certainly would not have said the same to my male colleagues. This irrelevant objection revealed his blatant bias. If anything, it reinforced my resolve to leave and to say no to whatever counteroffer he made. 

He asked, "Are you sure there's nothing I can do for you to make you stay? Tell me what you want." 

"I appreciate that, but no, I'm good." Truth be told, I had never felt so sure of anything as much as I did then. 

In the end, the CFO (someone who never commented on my looks) approved my severance request.

But what if you don't want to walk away?  

Third, calmly respond to their no with questions. 

A simple "Would you tell me why?" or "What's behind your no?" would do. 

Don't mistake this for a strategy for being "nice." It's a strategy for identifying their objections, so you can address them and draw the other side closer to your point of view. Like in the martial art of jujitsu, it's about using the force of their opposition to turn it around, instead of confronting it with the strength of your debating powers. 

So hear them out, without interrupting. Actively listen to qualify their objections. Paraphrase what you've heard. Underscore their expressed emotions and ask for clarity. 

For example: "So what I hear is that, while you're happy with my work, you can't authorize a merit-based salary increase at this time, because it's not in the budget. Is there anything I've missed?" 

(If they say no) "Would you help me understand how the budget-setting process works?"  

(If it's strictly a matter of timing) "Would you be open to revisiting this conversation two months before the next quarter's budget is set?" 

Fourth, problem solve and pivot. 

While "It's not in the budget" or "I can't afford it" may look like logical counterarguments, the real emotional objection often lurks right below the surface. 

Psychologically speaking, losses are twice as powerful as gains, and one of the most deeply ingrained fear people have is losing the status quo. Even if you ask for a win-win solution, if that solution necessitates taking a risk or making changes, you may get a fear-based no. 

The solution isn't to condescend or to minimize their fear of change. The solution is to empathize, problem solve and pivot. 

Kara Martin Snyder, health and lifestyle strategist with vital corps, shared a great example of how she does this with potential coaching clients who object to her fees. 

First she asks, "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

Which she follows up with the pivoting question: "Is this truly about the money or something else?" 

Short answer: It's never really about the money.

Sometimes they are afraid to make changes. ("Will I have to give up gluten and everything good in my life?") Once this underlying fear is addressed, and they have bought in to the idea of coaching, that's when creative solutions help to flip the initial no into a resounding yes. 

They rearrange a few things (in one case, to throw a yard sale to raise the money) and they find the money. 

So remember, every no is an opportunity to engage, to problem solve and to pivot to the yes that you seek.