The term “no” is etched deeply in our psyches as something to fear. The source of fear arises from the classical conditioning that accompanies the spoken word, “no.” When we’re young, “no” can have a strong negative tone or come accompanied by a harsh expression from a parent or teacher. The word “no” can also bring back memories of being deprived of a desired object.
The word can take us back to our past, impact our present, and even affect our future. “No” is a powerful word. It’s a word worthy of some reflection, especially if you have involvement in sales or negotiation.
“No” is a dreaded word in business deals. Once you hear the other party pronounce “no,” how do you pivot away from the term? Start by asking “why” questions. Driving every “no” is a motivation, a reason. Once you realize the reason behind the objection, you begin to see cause and effect. Often in my career, my investigation of “no” has led to greater understanding. If you learn to listen past your personal experience and the negative connotation of “no,” you begin to see its true meaning.
Let me give an example. Once, a company I represented had secured an investment, but things hadn’t gone according to plan and the company needed another infusion of money. My client and I sat down with the investors. As my client described the situation, I could see the tension among the investors rise. When he finished, a member of the investor group made a sweeping “no” statement. He said an additional investment was a non-starter. The term “non-starter” is a firm way of saying “no,” often made by someone in a power position. My client began accusing the investors of reneging on promises to be there when he needed them, and the situation escalated into a yelling match. Insults were exchanged and personal attacks flew across the table in both directions.
How does one deal with such a high stress, high stakes situation? Here are the strategies I used to pivot from “no” to “yes” in the negotiation:
1. Take a break or a time out.
In the example above, I proceeded by asking for a time out. I took my client to another room and said, “I don’t think they’ve absorbed the information that you need the money for growth, and that you may run out of money without an infusion. If that happens, they will lose their original investment. Let me try to get them talking and find out why an additional investment is a non-starter.”
When we reentered the room and sat down, I apologized. I said to the investors that we should not have surprised them like this. I explained that my client was surprised that the matter couldn’t even be discussed. I said that all we wanted to know was why our request was a non-starter. With a calmer environment, the investors explained that they’d just had a meeting with their Board and had told them that this particular company investment was doing well. The investors’ concern was with explaining so shortly after that reassuring meeting that they needed to invest more money in the company.
Now I explained that the company was doing well but couldn’t finance the growth it was facing. The problem was that the accounts receivable were growing, that they essentially were loans to customers, but this created a need for cash.
Upon hearing this information, the investors replied, “Well, okay, that’s interesting. Maybe we could back an accounts receivable loan to your company secured by new purchase orders.” And that’s what happened. The investors didn’t have to infuse new equity per se, but they provided a guaranty to an accounts receivable loan that financed my client’s growth.
The time out technique, borrowed from parent-child negotiations, is an effective solution when the situation has deteriorated to a point where parties can’t listen to each other. When emotions run high and parties resort to yelling and name-calling, everyone needs a time out to calm down and collect themselves. When we reconvened and calmly explained the situation in our negotiation, the investors were calmer, able to listen, and willing to find a mutually satisfying solution.
The time out gave me a chance to listen to all parties with patience and understanding. From my investigations, I unveiled the true meaning behind the “no,” which had little to do with my client. The situation wasn’t a non-starter. The investors could explain this to their board, and everyone would be reassured and get what they wanted.
2. Use open probe questions.
One way to navigate complicated deals and situations such as in the example above is to ask the right questions. Asking open probe questions will reveal the preferences and desires of the counterparty and allow you to uncover a solution or path forward.
In general, people use open probes to find opportunities and closed probes to identify needs. In salesperson speak, you’re looking for needs that your solution can satisfy. Negotiation is a form of selling — you’re selling your position, or selling to solve your counterparty’s needs in a way that also satisfies what you and your client want.
Closed probes questions often call for only a yes or no answer. There are only two choices — this or that. Closed probes tend to raise tension, while open probes tend to lower tension.
Reach into your database of experiences. How do you feel when someone says, “Hi, how’re you doing?” This open probe question allows you to answer however you want. But suppose someone says, “Are you prepared or not for the meeting?” You might like to explain why you aren’t prepared, but you’re forced to answer yes or no. Watch a cross-examination on TV or in a movie. You’ll notice that the closed probe questions put pressure on the witness or defendant. These types of questions are designed to force an answer favorable to the lawyer doing the cross-examination.
3. Back off and slow down.
In the negotiation example, backing off and slowing down became the solution to a high-stress situation. Particularly in a sales or negotiation context, if you’re not making progress and running into several objections, you won’t advance your cause by arguing. It may be tempting to become argumentative, especially during a stalled negotiation, but that always does more harm than good.
In times where you need to back off and slow down, say something evident that no one can disagree with to regain your footing. Notice that this is consistent with the technical side of need-satisfaction sales. If you have trouble closing, you need to remind your prospects of their already accepted benefits.
If you encounter a barrier to your persuasive progress, don’t pick up the pace and push harder. Instead, slow down and repeat matters already agreed upon.
4. Go silent.
Sometimes reiteration isn’t the best strategy, even if you’re patient and calm when you restate your position. In these instances, going silent is the best alternative. Silence is truly golden when it comes to sales and negotiation. Leonardo da Vinci once said that “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”
Using silence is an advanced skill. In our noisy world today, we’ve lost the gift of silence. Those who practice the Russian Martial Arts spend large amounts of time being quiet and relaxing in order to feel others beyond themselves.
Silence doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. It means people are thinking. While it may be an overstatement, some say whoever speaks first after the silence loses. In any event, when people are silent, the following statement assumes amplified importance. Someone will eventually speak, but no one will ramble and you’re much more likely to move more efficiently following the pause.
Pivoting from “no” ultimately depends on your willingness to listen, learn and approach your client relationships and negotiations with openness and understanding. You must investigate the “no” to get to its true meaning, take a break during stressful deals, ask open probe questions, back off, slow down, and even go silent when necessary. These strategies will improve your negotiations, and will aid you in all facets of your professional life as well.
Cash Nickerson is chairman of AKKA North America’s Business Unit. He was President, CFO, General Counsel, and the second largest shareholder of PDS Tech prior to its purchase by AKKA Technologies. He teaches Negotiation as a Professor of Practice at Washington University in St. Louis, School of Law. Nickerson has authored several books, with his latest book, “Negotiation as a Martial Art: Techniques to Master the Art of Human Exchange“.