How Seeking a No Can Make You Better at Getting to Yes

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

When was the last time someone said no to you? How did it feel? Likely, not great. When we ask for something, our goal is typically to get a yes. That’s why many participants in MWI’s Negotiation Skills Workshop are a bit confused when we give them some homework: get three people to say no to you over the course of one day.

Typically, participants’ responses fall into three categories:

1. They try, and they get a few no’s.
2. They try, and they get a few yes’s.
3. They don’t try.

The largest group is normally those who don’t try at all. Many people are hesitant to try getting to yes, much less making it their goal to have someone deny their request. The fear of hearing no – and feeling defeated, embarrassed, or unworthy – stops a lot of people from even attempting a playful exercise like this one.

However, the participants who do try are often surprised by how many yes’s they get. People have gotten free desserts and free parking, extra help with housework from spouses and children, and even a European vacation. For those who do get no’s, they often knew that the other person couldn’t really say yes – like asking a coworker to take on an extra project knowing that her plate is already overloaded – or that the other person historically always says no to their request.

Before we explain why we find this exercise useful for our trainees, think about how easy it is for you to say no. Do you look forward to it? Often, we want to say yes to other people. A yes can help build relationships, allow us to show our value, and make us feel good by being helpful. So if we want to be able to say yes to other people, it stands to reason that other people want to say yes to us as well.

So how can you improve your chances that other people want to say yes to you? Here are three main lessons, drawn from the “No Exercise,” that can help you:

1. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

There’s a couple reasons we hold ourselves back from making requests and asking for things. First, we don’t want to put someone out. We’ve all been in a position where we say yes to a request even though we would have preferred to say no. Saying no can be as uncomfortable as hearing no, and we want to respect the other person.

More often, though, we say no for the other person before we give them a chance to hear our proposal. We are certain that our boss won’t be interested in our idea, or we just know that the service provider won’t offer us a discount. Rather than asking and possibly being denied a request, we withhold. But you can’t know what the other person will say until you are willing to ask. Give them credit – after all, we know that a lot of people want to say yes for a variety of reasons. Negotiate with yourself and build up the courage to ask. As Michael Scott of The Office said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

2. You can build a more “yes-able” proposition.

So you’ve negotiated with yourself to make a request of another person and enter in a negotiation. How can you increase the likelihood of getting a yes? You can start by focusing on the other person’s interests. Think about their wants, needs, fears, and desires. Ask yourself: why would this person want to say yes to my request or proposal? The more you focus your request on the other person’s interests, the more “yes-able” your proposition will be.

If you feel like you don’t know much about the other person’s interests, ask. Before you make your request or propose your idea, spend time talking to the other person. For instance, before asking your supervisor to implement a flex-time policy, ask her why she chose the current policy. If she has said no to people before, ask about her concerns. Get to know the bigger picture by asking about the department’s current goals and needs. Listen carefully and draw out her interests. Then, focus your proposal on her responses. Anticipate reasons for a no, and address them in your proposal. For instance, if your supervisor prefers to see what tasks you are working on during the day by dropping by your desk, you could create a set list of tasks for flex-time days and get her approval in advance.

3. Hearing a no can improve your chances of getting to yes.

Once you hear a no, the negotiation is over, right? Not necessarily. Utilize the other person’s response to open up a new conversation. A no is filled with rich information about a person’s interests, and we can learn from it. Sometimes, a no is more of a caveat than an outright denial. If certain conditions were to change – more resources, more justification, more time – then a yes might not only be possible, but it might be preferable. You can’t know what these conditions are unless you keep engaging.

It can be hard to continue engaging with someone who says no to you, but it’s worth it. Listen carefully to their response, even if it is negative. Ask questions to learn more about the reasons behind their no. Then learn from your experience, and think about how you can make your request more fitting for their needs. You can use that no to improve your chances of getting to yes.

We encourage you to try the “No Exercise” and see what lessons you draw from the experience. It will not only challenge you to step outside your comfort zone, but it will also refine your persuasion skills. Let us know what you experience and learn in the comments below.

To learn more about how to get better at getting to yes, contact Chuck Doran, MWI’s Executive Director, at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org.

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