The great actor Sidney Poitier once said, “I always had the ability to say no. That’s how I called my own shots.”

Meanwhile, Mark Cuban has regularly said, “Every no gets me closer to a yes.”

Put these together and it’s clear that Poitier and Cuban would have had a great time negotiating against one another. The Venn diagram here is pretty big. But it isn’t exactly unique. Sidney Poitier’s line about the ability to say no is something we all aspire towards. Which means that Mark Cuban’s attitude, which welcomes people to say “no”, allows him to negotiate with everyone.

Who Do We Negotiate With?

I suspect we do most of our real negotiation with our partners. We’re most comfortable around them. The proof is plain in how easily we can say “no” to them when we want.

Imagine your partner wants to go out tonight. But it’s late and you’ve had a long day. What do you do?

Channelling your best Poitier, you’ll say, “No. I don’t want to.”

But your partner will persist, giving his best Mark Cuban impression. “C’mon, how about a quick bite? Maybe just a drink? I’m bored.”

You’ll quickly respond: “No! I’m tired. If you want to go out so bad, then go. I’m staying here.”

True love in action, right? This is the sort of exchange that signifies a great relationship because it allows each person to have agency and understanding. The ability to provide one another a “comfortable no” is a major hallmark of a strong bond.

It is a major hallmark of a great negotiation, too. But this isn’t so obvious. Most of us consider the word “no” to be something we should avoid in a negotiation. After all, it’s the word that creates all the stress and strain in the first place; it’s the reason you’re at the table. You somehow ran into a “no” and now, as that famous book by would suggest, you want to get to yes.

That’s fine. Just don’t try to get there too quickly.   

We Say Yes. We Mean No.

What is your personality? How do you describe yourself? Which framework do you use? Myers-Briggs? Real Colors? Enneagram?

When it comes to measuring our personality, there is a 31 Flavors panoply of tests you can choose from. Yet, when you really get to the heart of the research, psychologists have settled on a core framework that accurately categorizes every persona in a reliable and valid way. It is referred to as The Big Five or by the common acronym OCEAN. This framework is supremely helpful for any of us who want to make sense of our fellow humans. It is time-tested, research-backed, blended from best practices through the decades, and relatively easy to understand.  

All five factors are worth researching but I want to focus today’s study on the “A” in the OCEAN acronym. It stands for agreeableness. As quoted from Wikipedia:

The agreeableness trait reflects individual differences in general concern for social harmony. Agreeable individuals value getting along with others. Disagreeable individuals place self-interest above getting along with others.

We each have a unique base rate of agreeableness. I don’t know where it comes from but we all have it. The nuance is that we all fluctuate on the spectrum in given circumstances. Certain people, in certain relationships, make us more agreeable than what we would normally be. Other people make us less agreeable.

At work, you might be wildly disagreeable to the point of puritanical zeal. Nevermind backbone. You’re a brick wall.

But at home, you might be a total pushover. A spineless jellyfish who just goes with the flow.

All the same, our base rates hold steady in most situations. And in most situations, we are all largely agreeable. There is beauty in this. It is what drives a cooperative society. A fabulous 2008 paper by Professor Francis J. Flynn of Stanford University and Vanessa Lake of Columbia University shows that we grossly underestimate people’s willingness to help us. We underestimate our own agreeableness. Every day, people everywhere are just waiting to say “yes” in the effort to be useful.

Of course, this tendency can be, and often is, abused. Whether it’s through gross sales tactics or passive-aggressive bosses, many people will ask for things that plainly take advantage of our good nature. It causes us to do things we don’t really want to do.

This is why Sidney Poitier’s quote is so admirable. We’re a polite society, all things considered, and we say yes to too many things. Poitier reminds us that we should reconsider that idea. Call your shots! If you don’t, others will.

In fact, our agreeableness is such a problem that Greg McKeown had to write a book about it. His work, Essentialism, is one of my all-time favorites. Here’s the link to my review. The book is nearly 100,000 words written to help you say “no” more often. Highly recommended.

Safety In No

We intuitively understand the power of the word “no” from the agreeableness point of view. Aside from your partner, child, best friend, or parent, saying “no” to someone is practically taken as an offense. It proves how typical relationships are so tenable.

Conversely, it shows how you can strengthen a typical relationship really quickly. You can strengthen a relationship by empowering a person to say “no”. And when it comes to negotiation, this is where the best approaches to finding agreement are so deeply misunderstood.

Ask anyone who works in sales and they’ll tell you the one word they never want to hear is “No.”

Ask Chris Voss, master negotiator and author of Never Split The Difference, and he’ll say the one word he never wants to hear is a noncommittal “Yes.”

We get a lot of those. We give a lot of them, too. But a genuine “Yes”, as in a genuine negotiated agreement, is the ultimate goal. The best path to that goal involves a lot of heartfelt utterances of the word “No”. As Voss explains:   

Your invitation for the other side to say “No” has an amazing power to bring down barriers and allow for beneficial communication.

How so? By finding the edges. A great negotiation defines the space within which you can both operate. Think back to the earlier mention of Venn Diagrams. At the start of a negotiation, your circle probably doesn’t overlap much with the other party. That can change. But not until you find out where the overlap does exist, doesn’t exist, and why.

It’s like a rejection-based version of the kid’s game Marco Polo. You enter a negotiation with your eyes closed, trying to find where the other party’s coming from. What about this? What about that? When you reach a limit, where the other party says no, you find the real source of their needs and interests.

Once a “no” is offered, Voss goes straight to the productive questions and labeling efforts that uncover the party’s real needs.

This is when real negotiation begins: with the second-level questions. Voss gives two great examples. After hearing “no”, he suggests you then ask something like:

“What about this doesn’t work for you?”

Or do some labeling:

“It seems like there’s something here that bothers you.”

Notice that the statement above begins with the phrase “It seems like …” This calls us back to the labeling technique from yesterday’s article.

Both questions open a space for the other party to say the things they need to say. What’s funny, though, is that the things the other party needs to say are often things they aren’t prepared to talk about. When you empower them to use the word “no”, you give them self-confidence. You give them a safe space to represent their interests in precisely the way they need to. As Voss explains:  

Saying “No” makes the speaker feel safe, secure, and in control, so trigger it. By saying what they don’t want, your counterpart defines their space and gains the confidence and comfort to listen to you. That’s why “Is now a bad time to talk?” is always better than “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Priming Effects

I am enamored with Voss’s techniques. He really threads the needle on negotiation so that we can rightfully pursue our best interests while respecting the interests of others. And he offers this in ways that treat people like actual people instead of objectifying us as bundles of biases ripe for manipulation.

But bias still exists and I think this approach leads to a sneaky, fascinating, reverse effect around priming. I’ve written about this before. Through the dynamic of “cognitive ease”, people have very calmly and confidently stated that a chicken’s body temperature is a 144 degrees. Which is hotter than medium steak. Why would people believe that?

Well, if you’re exposed to the phrase “144 degrees” enough, it starts to lose meaning. It becomes a symbol. You can tack it onto anything.

All the same, I think there’s a reverse effect with this empowerment for “no”. When you help people in a negotiation by giving them the comfort to say “no”, I suspect you plant the seed for them to want to say “yes”. Handle the conversations well, with calm and charisma, while listening carefully and pushing them to “no” wherever you can, and I think people will actually enjoy talking with you.

For now. Which means they’ll feel primed and thus compelled to “yes” at the end. Perhaps through guilt or agreeableness. Perhaps because you treated them well. I don’t know. But there’s something about this pattern that makes me think it triggers another bias.

In closing, this may all sound like the recipe for making a nice conversation rather than a winning negotiation. But our bare knuckles do come out. Just not here. It happens later. After you’ve given the other party the comfort to wield their bare knuckles first.

Let the other party say “no”. This creates the bond, the relationship. The relationship then gives you the chance to express your own agency. In smarter, more strategic ways.


Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash