“Nah to the ah, to the No, No, No”
Megan Trainor makes it clear in the song “No [Untouchable]” through her repeated “No’s” to her would be suitor that she isn’t interested.
For those who don’t know the song and for those who must hear it now just click here!
And to most people, hearing the word “No” is something all of us want to avoid in our interactions whether you are attempting to get a date, negotiate a promotion, discussing a pay raise, getting a specific price on a new car, or making a deal for providing a service. “No” is the death nail that stops forward progress and hearing it brings most of us great distress and we will dodge situations and avoid questions that may prompt this response.
We are so wrong in this thinking.
Instead, we should not just welcome but embrace “No”.
To understand why, let’s first take a vacation. Let’s go somewhere tropical and beautiful, say Costa Rica. It has been an amazing week of adventure and relaxation with friends. On your last day of the trip, you decide to spend it lying on the beach. It’s hot and all you have to do is drink some ice water, but once you started thinking about it, a nice cold bottle of beer would taste amazing. One of your friends is with you on the beach and they are leaving to run an errand. Being a good friend, they offer to bring back a bottle of your favorite beer from the only place nearby that sells alcohol, which is a rather fancy resort hotel. Your friend warns you that it may be expensive, given there are no other sellers nearby, and asks you how much you are willing to spend. You agree that if the actual cost is more than your maximum, no beer. They won’t buy it.
What is the amount you are willing to pay?
Researcher Richard Thayer asked exactly this question of participants in an executive development program, and their median answer was $5.88 (note: this is an inflation adjusted answer as their actual answer was $2.65 in 1985).
How close were you to this number?
Actually, this question was asked to only half of the participants. The other half had the same exact setup but the only difference was that the phrase “rather fancy resort hotel” was replace with “small rundown grocery store.” For this group, the maximum amount they would pay for the beer was 76% less – $3.33.
But why would this be? It is the same beer, just as cold, and they would be enjoying it on the same beach so there is no premium to pay for atmosphere. Why would the maximum amount they would pay for a beer change because of who is selling it? Either it is a maximum or it isn’t.
The answer lies in something researchers call the “Ultimatum Game”. In this game, there are two participants. One participant, whom we will call the Giver, in sight of the other participant, whom we will call the Receiver, is given ten dollars. The rules are then explained to both the Giver and the Receiver together.
The Giver is to hand over some amount of the ten dollars to the Receiver. If the Receiver agrees to the amount, then both the Giver and Receiver keep their split of the ten dollars. If, however, the Receiver does not agree to the amount given, then all the money goes back to person running the experiment.
In a logical world, any amount offered by the Giver should be accepted according to economic theory because the Receiver, even if only offered one dollar, would have one more dollar than before the experiment began. Who would turn down a free dollar? But this isn’t what happens when this experiment is run. As it turns out, the Receiver isn’t very grateful to receive only a dollar and readily gives it up so that the Giver can’t keep the remaining nine. It doesn’t make logical sense. If the same experimenter simply came up to the two participants and said, “can I give you one dollar and you nine dollars?” to the two participants, they would accept. The end result is the same. But our idea of fairness and revenge drives the decision to say “No” in the first scenario. It is emotional reasoning.
Understanding this fact is key in understanding almost all decision making. While we would like to think of ourselves as logical, straight forward, fact based decision makers, we simply are not, even in the simplest of everyday decisions. Daniel Kahneman writes about this extensively in Thinking Fast and Slow. We are full of cognitive biases and irrational behavior. Seeking “Yes” feels like a logical strategy, but because we are not logical creatures, we have to rethink “No”.
There is a sales technique called Foot In The Door (FITD), the crux of which is what is called building a “Yes Set”. That is a series of “Yes” answers to ever increasing requests. Research in the 1960s showed that homeowners would overwhelming turn down (83%) having a large billboard in their yards saying “Drive Safely” but one group of homeowners actually agreed 76% of the time to this request [reference: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini]. The only difference between these two groups, was that the second group weeks earlier had been asked and agreed to place a small 3-inch square sign in their front window that stated, “Be a Safe Driver”. They had agreed to a small earlier request, and now to be consistent with their earlier agreement, also agreed to a large yard sign whereas had they been asked for the large sign first, the overwhelming majority would have said No. From this point forward, not just sales people, but most of us are taught to strive for “Yes” and to avoid “No”. In fact, the 1981 book Getting to Yes remains a bestseller.
The limitation of this thinking is, when you know you are being sold to or someone is trying to convince you of something, you could say yes all day long, but because your guard is up you won’t remain open to what might actually be a good opportunity.
In his book, Never Split The Difference, FBI Negotiator Chris Voss, describes three types of “Yes”: Counterfeit, Confirmation, and Commitment. The first is really a “No” and is told just to get rid of the requester. The second is a simple yes that doesn’t further the discussion – e.g., is the sky blue, ‘yes’. The last is the real deal but it only comes from trust and rapport which doesn’t happen if you are on guard.
Embracing “No” creates this path. Here’s why –
“It comes down to the deep and universal human need for autonomy. People need to feel in control. When you preserve a person’s autonomy by clearly giving them permission to say “No” to your ideas, the emotions calm, the effectiveness of the decisions go up, and the other party can really look at your proposal. They’re allowed to hold it in their hands, to turn it around. And it gives you time to elaborate or pivot in order to convince your counterpart that the change you’re proposing is more advantageous than the status quo.”
“This means you have to train yourself to hear “No” as something other than rejection, and respond accordingly. When someone tells you “no,” you need to rethink the word in one of its alternative-and much more real- meanings:
- I am not yet ready to agree;
- You are making me feel uncomfortable;
- I do not understand;
- I don’t think I can afford it;
- I want something else;
- I need more information; or
- I want to talk it over with someone else.
Then, after pausing, ask solution-based questions… ‘What about this doesn’t work for you?’ or ‘What would you need to make it work?’”
Once you embrace this understanding, you may find yourself in a situation where you can feel the other person holding back and you are fine hearing the “No” but they simply aren’t saying it. In these situations, Voss suggests creating a “No” to break the tension.You preserve a person’s autonomy by clearly giving them permission to say “No” Click To Tweet
Here are two approaches to driving to “No” –
- Say something you know is totally wrong, like “it seems like you against taking on a high visibility project”
- Ask what they don’t want, for example “Let’s talk about what you would say ‘No’ to.” I like the last one because it implies there is something that they would say “Yes” to and encourages this thinking subconsciously.
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What all this is getting at is, it is time to embrace that as humans we are moved by both reason and emotion and that the only true, strong, collaborative, trusting relationships and interactions come through our emotional selves.
Understanding, embracing, allowing, and encouraging “No” is one way to do just this.