Negotiate 1-2-3

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How to Say "No"

Learning Objectives Est. time: 13 min.

  • Understanding different reasons for saying no
  • Fitting how you say "no" to the particular circumstances
  • Recognizing the potential benefit of expressing a “positive no”

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During a recent negotiation you likely answered yes to a variety of questions. You might have said, for instance:

Likewise, depending how things went, you might have used the word no more than once, as in:

Think back to the last important negotiation you undertook. Perhaps it involved buying a car, dealing with a troublesome neighbor, or selling a product or service to a potential customer. Try to remember your interaction with the other party as honestly as you can. Click on the button below to answer some key questions about your last negotiation experience.

Are You Too Agreeable?

At a meeting with a consultant, a CEO of a midsized company cheerfully said, “In twenty-five years, we’ve never failed to reach agreement with a customer or a vendor.”

Other senior managers were present, so the consultant politely nodded his head and smiled. Later when he and the CEO were alone, he commented that the company’s unblemished record was an odd thing to be proud of. He quoted the old saying, “If you never miss a flight, you’re spending a lot of time in airports.”

The same principle applies in negotiation. If you always come to agreement, there are two explanations and neither of them is good.

Either you’re being overly cautious and only going after sure things, or you’re sometimes saying yes when you’d be better off walking away. Just as with flights that you can’t afford to miss, of course, there are deals that must be made. But you shouldn’t agree simply for the sake of agreement.

Understanding this principle is easy in the abstract, but many people have trouble honoring it in real world cases. Companies often unwittingly set up incentives that make it hard for their employees to come home from the bargaining table empty-handed. John Hammond, a former Harvard Business School Professor (and co-author of the excellent decision-making book, Smart Choices) has consulted for major insurance companies. He tells of one firm that was concerned that it was being too generous in settling multimillion-dollar claims, even when the odds of losing those cases in court were very low.

In a typical case, one of the company’s customers (the insured) might have been involved in a serious and costly car accident which most likely wasn’t that driver’s fault. Nevertheless, the other operator might file suit hoping to win damages. In John’s confidential interviews, the adjusters conceded that they were overpaying these third parties. Yet they had learned from experience that their bosses would criticize them for not settling the one time in ten that juries ruled for the claimant, but not fully credit them the other nine times where the insured was absolved of all liability.

If anybody should be risk neutral, it should be an insurance company. But what might be true for the firm as a whole doesn’t necessarily apply for a particular employee whose career be on on the line. Savvy plaintiff lawyers on the other side understood and exploited individual adjusters’ risk aversion.

John offered two seemingly simple suggestions that significantly improved the performance of the company’s negotiators. First, the company revised criteria for annual reviews so that an adjuster’ s portfolio of cases would be assessed as whole, rather than piecemeal. Instead of being a badge of honor, an ultra-high settlement rate became a red flag. Top management wanted to see a reasonable number of stalemates where the long-run cost of going to court was less than caving in to extravagant demands.

Then, to signal this policy change to the plaintiffs’ bar, they simply changed the way that staff assistants answered the phone. When a lawyer would call an adjuster to negotiate a claim, they would be told, “I’m sorry but Chris is in court today and tomorrow. Can we set up a time to talk on Thursday?” The intended message was, “We’re not afraid to litigate.”

Negotiators need to know that they have permission to say no whatever the context, be it lawsuit settlement, sales, or purchasing. That doesn’t mean they have to be hard-nosed or rigid. Creativity can spell the difference between deadlock and a deal. Likewise, forging a constructive relationship can lead others to accept terms that they might have originally rejected.

But even when people are operating in good faith, some things simply may prove non-negotiable. Overpaying or undercharging doesn’t make sense. Moreover, it can be even more costly in the long term if it leads counterparts to have unrealistic expectations in future negotiations.

The same is true for your own personal negotiations, whether you’re buying a car, seeking a raise in pay, or trying to solve a problem in a community organization. Be willing to pursue some deals that might not work out (but would pay off handsomely if they came to fruition). Have the good sense, of course, to walk away when they don’t.

Do You Need to Say No?

Imagine a world in which, by law, you were permitted to say no firmly only three times in an entire negotiation. When would be the best time to play those three precious cards?

If you’re prudent, you’d take care not to waste them responding to your counterpart’s proposals and demands. Instead you could respond with your own demand or counterproposal. Or you could move the dialogue to a different plane by explaining your underlying interests and how any realistic agreement must meet them. If you have a strong and credible non-agreement alternative, making your walkaway option clear may be more powerful than merely saying no.

If, however, your counterpart has unrealistic expectations about what you are willing to accept, you may have to play one of your firm-no cards. Before doing so, though, be sure to consider other ways to deliver that message.

A no may be required even before you get to the point of exchanging offers. To reach agreement, it may be necessary to challenge other parties’ assumptions so that they see things in a light that is more favorable to you. Deborah Kolb, co-author of Negotiating at Work, describes the importance of “correcting moves” that constructively reframe the situation.

She gives the example of mid-level manager named Caitlin who is seeking a promotion based, in part, on her successfully landing a major new client for her company. When she brings that up to her boss, he dismissively says, “You only closed a deal that was already in the pipeline.”

It might be tempting for her to use one of her firm-no cards and say, “That’s not true!” Doing so, however, gives the boss no reason to see things differently. Instead it might be more effective (and less confrontational) for her to say, “I know it may appear that way to you, but here’s a memo in which I’ve detailed every critical step I took along the way to make this deal happen.” (To learn more about artful moves and turns—and Caitlin’s case—see the Powerplays module in the Critical Moments unit.)

Disagreement can also arise over process issues—where to meet, who should take part, and what the agenda entails. A counterpart may propose (or demand) something impractical or detrimental to your interests. Again, there are alternatives to a flat no. You can make a counterproposal, of course, or you can adapt a precept from improv theater: always agree—never negate. A blunt contradiction stops the action onstage. If the players can’t agree on who they are and where they are situated, they certainly can’t figure out where to go next.

Disagreement is natural in negotiation, of course. If there were utter agreement, there would be no need to be at the bargaining table in the first place. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes possible to dial back on the negativity, by saying “yes and . . .” rather than “no.” The words that follow can be an elaboration that gobbles up much of the original proposal. For example, if Kim’s agenda only includes issues A and B, Chris could say, “Yes and let’s be sure to address issues C and D, as that would help us generate some more creative solutions.”

On occasion, you may feel compelled to say no sharply to another party’s behavior if they have been demeaning, hostile, or accusatory. If you don’t speak up, they’ll have little motivation to become more respectful and reasonable. In such cases you may be glad that you saved at least one of your firm-no cards.

Before playing it, though, step back and ponder what might be behind that behavior. Perhaps they feel that you did or said something provocative. Or maybe they are under pressure at work or at home. You might consider saying something like, “The temperature in the room seems to be getting a little heated. If I’ve inadvertently stepped on your toes, let me know.” There’s no guarantee things will change for the better, but there’s little cost in saying that. If it fails, you can say no to the behavior and walk away.

This section of the module started with on an imaginary planet in which no's are strictly rationed. As you’ve seen, there are many other ways to draw boundaries, reset assumptions, and respond to proposals without using that two-lettered word. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying no, of course, but we should avoid overusing it. The more you say no, the more others will color you as incurably negative. If you use it sparingly, it commands attention and singles out what you object to.

How to Say No and Still Get to Yes

The title of the classic negotiation book Getting to Yes is upbeat and positive. It suggests a win-win outcome that leaves both parties better off, a message that is underscored by its subtitle, Negotiating Agreement without Giving In.

If your counterpart is more powerful, however, and they’re twisting your arm, saying yes can be painful. You may feel compelled to agree to something that you really don’t want to do. Yet you submit out of fear that refusing the more powerful party’s demand could hurt even more.

Often when we’re wrestling with whether to say yes or no, we should consider a third option: saying both! The following video shows what that approach entails.

Here's a quick recap of William Ury's three-step approach from his book The Power of a Positive No.

  1. Recognize where your no is coming from, what it is that you are really trying to protect.
  2. Next, weld that affirmation to the no that you express.
  3. Now add another yes by proposing an alternative that addresses your counterpart's interests.

Taken together these three steps allow you to protect your own needs and values, while opening up an exploration of other ways to advance your counterpart’s interests. The approach is both respectful and empowering.

As Ury says, “You can stand on your feet without stepping on other people’s toes.”


Whether your no is explicit or indirect, you need to consider on how it will be heard. Erin Meyer is the author of Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da, which appeared in December 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review. She explains how disagreement is expressed varies from culture to culture.

Subtle differences in wording can obviously make a big difference in what is heard and how it is received. Sometimes what is not said can make a big difference, as well. Harvard Business School Professor Deepak Malhotra makes that point in his book, Negotiating the Impossible. Right there on page 145 in bold type he states: “Ignore ultimatums. The more attention you give to them, the harder it will be for the other side to back down if the situation changes.”

When someone in a negotiation tells you, “absolutely not” or “it’s against company policy,” your natural impulse may be to ask why or to seek an exception (or challenge the assertion itself). But often it’s smarter to let the remark pass without comment. Your counterpart may have spoken in haste. Given time, they may soften their position—provided you haven’t inadvertently reinforced it.

Rising to the bait is often the worst thing to do. Don’t ask if they really mean what they just said, Malhotra advices. If someone paints themself into a corner, why hand them another bucket and brush? Instead, let the moment pass.

But what if your counterpart persists? Malhotra recommends re-framing the ultimatum using less rigid language so it’s easier for them to back down. If not now, then maybe later. For example, say something like, “I can understand how, given where things stand today, this would be difficult for you to do . . .” 

Note how those three italicized words pack so much meaning into that short phrase:

  • Understand is an acknowledgment that you have heard their problem, so they don’t have to state again.
  • Today reminds them that things may change, especially if you can jointly tackle their underlying constraints.
  • Difficult sounds more pliable than impossible. It implies that somewhere within a tangled problem, there’s a solution struggling to find its way out. 

It’s a deft rephrasing that keeps the door open for further discussion. Done well, the transformation might take hold without even being noticed.

Malhotra acknowledges, of course, that some ultimatums are truly non-negotiable, but thinks there’s little harm in ignoring one when you first hear it. If it is real, he says, “they will repeat it over and over again, in all kinds of contexts and in all kinds of ways.”


Jim Camp, Start with No...The Negotiating Tools that the Pros Don't Want You to Know, Crown Business, 2002.

Deborah Kolb and Jessica Porter, Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains, Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Deepak Malhotra, Negotiating the Impossible: How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts (without Money or Muscle), Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Reprint 2018.

Erin Meyer, “Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da,” Harvard Business Review, December 2015.

William Ury, The Power of a Positive No: Save The Deal Save The Relationship and Still Say No, Bantam; Reprint edition 2007.

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