The Power of "No"

March 13, 2011 - 18:28
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It is not easy to be a contrarian in the United States, with its pioneering spirit and can do culture.  I value contrarians and respect their willingness to resist conformity and put in the work it takes to have original insights and opinions on things.  In my experience, recruiting a contrarian to a project team usually adds value and reduces risk.

One of my favorite contrarians is Jim Camp, the author of “Start with No,” a popular book on negotiation.  Jim’s contrarian approach to negotiating put a new set of tools in my toolkit.  He believes that a negotiator’s job is not to be liked, but to be respected and effective.  He reminds the reader that a person should never enter a negotiation without an agenda and a clear sense of what they want.  He also drives home the message that people often confuse wants with needs.  The person who focuses on their needs and keeps their wants in check has a powerful advantage in a negotiation.

A common thread in the book is the power of “no” and how a good negotiator should welcome hearing it and learn to use it.  Jim is suspicious of a quick “yes,” counseling that it can easily turn into a “no,” often after a substantial investment has been made in the negotiation, which puts pressure on you to give additional concessions to reach a final agreement.

Jim’s most powerful arguments, however, come when he talks about “maybe.”  He is uncompromising in his belief that “maybe” is always really a “no” and that a negotiator who hopes to turn a “maybe” into a “yes” is engaged in wishful thinking.  The smart negotiator, according to Jim, turns a “maybe” into a “no” and then tries to turn that into a “yes.”   To Jim, “no” is clarifying.  The person who says it realizes that the other party might walk away after hearing it, which makes them think carefully about next steps when they deliver it.  The person who hears it better understands their true position in the negotiation and can carefully consider whether they want to offer additional concessions in order to reach an agreement. 

My friend Mark Mendel at Intellectual Ventures taught me to circle back and  “harvest a clear no” when a negotiation has stalled but not ended.  He also taught me to try to learn as much as possible from the “no” by asking for clear feedback, with the hope that it is actionable. According to Mark, a good negotiator will probe to get the real reason for a “no.”  Even though this may produce a response that is uncomfortable,  knowing the information can often tell you something quite valuable about yourself, your company, or your product that needs to be addressed.  You should not leave this gold in the ground.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Michael O’Shaughnessy for reviewing this post and providing helpful comments and edits.

Author: Nick Franano, Founder