“No” Starts The Conversation
“No” is a powerful word. There are dozens of ways to say it … “That won’t work here,” or “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” But regardless of how it is said, it protects the person who says it and can be maddening to the person who hears it.
“No” protects the status quo. Unfortunately, we usually inflate the value and underestimate the risk of keeping things the way they are. Meanwhile, we underestimate the potential value, and overestimate the risk of new ideas. So, while “No” may protect us in the moment, it may also keep us stuck, or worse.
If you’ve ever offered suggestions to someone who had a problem, only to hear them say, “No,” as they reject every idea before they even consider it, you know how exasperating “No” can be. It only takes a couple of “No’s” in a row before you give up trying to help.
I have opportunities to observe and make suggestions to ranchers with all sorts of issues. When offering suggestions, I used to ask, “Why don’t you do X, Y or Z?” Of course, they would respond with exactly what I was asking for, an explanation of why they didn’t do X, Y or Z. I’ve stopped asking, “Why don’t you…” and replaced it with a much more effective alternative, “What would happen if you did X, Y, or Z?”
People often respond to “What would happen if…?” with some variation of “That won’t work here.” Of course that’s not an answer to my question. But rather than confront them I just ask, “Yeah, but what if it did?” I’ve found it’s an effective way to get people to consider the upside of an idea they initially dismissed. If after exploring the idea we find the upside isn’t big enough, we can both say “No” to the idea and find another one to explore. On the other hand, if there’s a big upside to the idea, it might be worth following up with, “What would it take to make that happen?” or, “How could someone do that in a way that avoids (the major objection)?”
Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator argues in his book, Never Split The Difference, that “No” doesn’t have to be the end of the negotiation. It can actually be the beginning. Voss says that saying “No” makes your negotiation partner feel safer and invites follow-up. When confronted with “No,” Voss will ask, “What about this doesn’t work for you?” Combined with some empathic listening, his experience is that you have a good chance of reaching an agreement. And his negotiations involve life and death!
So, next time you say, “No,” ask yourself, “Do I really mean ‘No,’ or am I creating some space to think?” Recognize the effect that “No” has on others and ask yourself, “Is that the impact I want to have?”
And, next time you hear “No,” don’t accept it as the end of the conversation. It could be just the beginning.