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How Expert Negotiators Use “No” to Close

By |September 16, 2019

Yes is a useless word.

When anything is really important, we don’t even bother with yes. It’s B.S. anyway and almost always fake.

When it’s important and we have to close, our goal is to get a no.

What do you say to get Jack Welch to come speak at the negotiation course you teach at USC? (Video)

Here’s more: Chris Voss is needed to close Robert Herjavec. Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec—who besides being a phenomenal businessman is truly a sweetheart of a guy and a generous human being.

Recently, Chris offered Mr. Herjavec a complimentary ticket to one of The Black Swan Group’s one-day negotiation training master classes, which at the time sold for $1,899. Now, of course, we expected (and hoped) that he would send one of his top people. To our delight, Mr. Herjavec responded with: How many can I buy?

As we were going back and forth with him, the event was about to sell out, which meant that The Herjavec Group was about to get shut out. This outcome would embarrass Chris and frustrate Mr. Herjavec.

It was a Monday and we needed a commitment by the end of the day. To complicate things further, both Chris and Mr. Herjavec are based in Los Angeles, which means they’re both three hours behind the business day on the East Coast. By the time the next business day started in Los Angeles (i.e., Tuesday), the remaining tickets would be sold.

Chris sent Mr. Herjavec the following email at 5:03 p.m. containing only these two lines:

  • Are you against making a firm commitment right now for two at the full price of $1,899 and one gratis?
  • Is it ridiculous to ask for one of your reps to go on our website and make the purchase before the beginning of the business day tomorrow?

Mr. Herjavec responded one minute later with the commitment for the tickets. He copied his assistant and she followed up 26 minutes later.

Saying no makes people feel protected and safe. At a minimum, this makes them more willing to listen because the mere act of listening bears no commitment. 

Many people are so addicted to the feeling that saying no gives them that it’s just silly to fight it by trying to get them to say yes. Getting them to say no is super easy, too. All you need to do is change your questions. We know that might sound dumb, but one of our Laws of Negotiation Gravity is “Ignore Human Nature At Your Peril.”

To illustrate: 

Useless Yes                                                Useful No

“Do you agree?”                                          “Do you disagree?”

“Does this work for you?”                          “Is this a bad idea?”

“Does this make sense?”                           “Is this a ridiculous idea?”

“Would you like to?”                                   “Are you against?”

“Would you still like to?”                            “Have you given up on this?”

“Do you have a few minutes?”                  “Is now a bad time?”

“Is this correct?”                                           “Am I out of line?”

The idea for this was born out of several influences.

The first is Jim Camp’s book Start with No (a business negotiation book from our recommended reading list). Jim’s entire strategy is based on making it clear from the beginning that your counterpart is allowed to say no. This approach to negotiation respects their autonomy—which actually increases the chances they will say yes.

But there are still two problems here:

  1. The issue of the counterfeit yes.  
  2. The fact that yes means nothing all by itself. Yes means nothing without how, and in point of fact, how is everything.

What happens if you kick it up a notch? What happens if you let go of your yes addiction altogether? (This is a pretty scary concept for all of you addicts for yes.)

Marti Evelsizer was the FBI Crisis Negotiation coordinator who worked out of its Pittsburgh office and is a darn talented negotiator. (This story is also in Never Split the Difference.) Her immediate boss was jealous of her phenomenal relationship with the Pittsburgh Police Department. It made the office look good, but it made him look small by comparison.

He decided to remove her from the negotiation team, with the proffered excuse that she was neglecting her investigations (she wasn’t).

At the point of decision, she asked him a simple no-oriented question: Do you want the FBI to be embarrassed?

He sat back, steepled his fingers (a sign of feeling large and in charge), and calmly said no.

She said, What do you want me to do?

She retained her position.

We’ve coached employees to say this to their bosses: Do you want me to fail? When they take this approach, they end up with great guidance for how to succeed instead. And their bosses don’t blow up at them, either. They show more concern.

We coached an individual in a job negotiation to write down all of the yes-oriented questions that confirmed that he was a great hire for a job he wanted, and then simply turned all of them into no-oriented questions by flipping them around.

Not only did he get the job, the hiring committee had to go back to the CFO so it could authorize the higher salary they ended up agreeing to.

Bottom line? Go for no. It might seem counterintuitive. But it works.

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