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The Strategic Negotiating Power of "No"

“When you say yes to something you don’t want to do, here is the result: you hate what you are doing, you resent the person who asked you, and you hurt yourself.” - James Altucher, The Power of No: Because One Little Word Can Bring Health, Abundance, and Happiness

"Don’t say maybe, if you want to say 'no.'" - Ryan Holiday.

"It’s only by saying 'no' that you can concentrate on the things that really matter." - Scott Belsky.


American Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, "If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Effective negotiators realize that they want many tools and for some tools, like the “hammer” to use it sparingly and wisely. One of these tools is the Power of Saying No.

Invariably in every negotiation, there is the necessity of saying “no.” Saying “no” strategically is an art and demands careful timing and strategy.

Why Are Negotiators Hesitant to Say “No” Even When Needed?

Why are negotiators hesitant to say “no” even when they know strategically, "no" is needed?

They confuse people issues with substantive issues. Many negotiators are afraid that feelings will be hurt and the relationship impaired when they say no.

They have failed to establish ranges.

They don’t want to impair the business relationship.

They are afraid of ruining a positive atmosphere.

They have failed to map out concessions.

Some, believe saying no is impolite, uncivil or rude.

Many simply want to accommodate even if it is to their detriment.

Others, want to be collaborative negotiators and do not believe that no is collaborative.

The Art of Saying “No.”

First, be a Goal Oriented Negotiator: During planning have a clear goal- so clear that an effective negotiator will have no issues stating this goal during the introduction. The effective negotiator will also spend time thinking about the goals of the other parties.

Envision the ideal agreement during planning. Think about the goals of all parties and envision the settlement that will meet all of the goals.

Sandwiching the no: Many communication experts advise to sandwich the “no” between two “yes’s.” An effective negotiator will first, of course, say “yes” to the negotiation process; Yes, to the structure including ground rules and guidelines; and then finally “yes” to the final agreement.

The “no’s” when necessary are connected to substantive issues or options.

Separate the people from the problem: An effective negotiator ensures that their fellow negotiators know that the “no” is directed toward the issue, not the person.

Planning is the key: During the planning stage, an effective negotiator will set a range for each issue. For example, if one is leasing business space, they establish the bottom line aka “the walk away” or the “must have.” Then they establish the “ideal” or the target. In this way, the negotiator can move along the range. If circumstances do not change and the option is going outside of the range, then the necessity of no becomes imminent.

Strategizing Concessions: During planning, an effective negotiator needs to map concessions. There are “must have’s,” “desired have’s,” okay things and throw-away’s.

Be prepared with options and alternatives. During planning, creating an option or a possible alternative to “no” is necessary. In this way, parties are not dwelling on the no but instead refocused on the recommended options.

Watch the nonverbal communication. Many communication experts indicate that only 7 percent of communication meaning emanates from the words themselves. Possibly 57 percent of meaning comes from body language and 36 percent comes from tone of voice.

Be certain that the “No” is clear and stable. The Art of No is not part of bluffing. It is not a game. There is no backtracking. There is no changing unless the circumstances change and the movement can be justified. The no should not be hidden in a “yes," but phrase: "Yes, I like the idea, but no, it will not work."

This clarity and non-backtracking helps one to build the reputation of a “honest” negotiator which is highly desirable. It is highly desirable because it increases substantially one’s ability to persuade.

Do not confuse (or conflate) honesty and openness: Many people “pair” open and honest like salt and pepper. An effective negotiator does not. Honesty is a component of one’s reputation. Being open about communication is strategic. So, in a negotiation if someone asks who else is bidding on the job and one strategically does not want to reveal that information at this time, clearly and politely say, "no, I am not willing to share that information at this time."

Leadership/emotional intelligence Travis Bradberry-Saying No

Award-winning Bradberry, who is with the California School of Professional Psychology, offers this advice on saying No:

-Find your yes. (Find your preferences.)

-Sleep on it.

-Sandwich the no between two yes’s.

-Make sure you are actually saying no.

-Be prepared to repeat yourself.

When I Say No, I Feel Guilty by Dr. Manuel J. Smith

This is an excellent book that was used by the American Management Association (AMA) in several of their courses such as Assertiveness. The book offers this advice on saying "no":

-Humans are unique. They have a problem solving ability. They need to learn to be assertive by saying "no," when necessary.

-People need to be assertive and not be manipulated. People have rights including the right to say "no."

-People need to work on reasonable compromises. When people need to say "no," be persistent.

-People can say "no" when asked to self-disclose or give information.

-Use the broken record skill that involves repetition of "no."


Steven Paul Jobs, co-founder of Apple, Inc.: “I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done.”

Terry Wheeler, attorney, mediator, and Adjunct Professor offers these thoughts on the Power of No:

“I think some negotiators say ‘no’ too often and some are afraid of saying ‘no.’ Effective negotiators use ‘no’ when it is strategically appropriate. Negotiators can provide a response that is tantamount to No. For example, if my client is offered $10,000 to settle a dispute, I can give a ‘no’ response by stating, “My client will settle for $50,000 and a written apology.’ In my negotiations, if I decided to actually say “no” then I follow up with another proposal.”

Peter Nagrod, Vice President of MSAG (Micro Systems Consultants, Inc. offers this summary on the Power of No:

“I like that you identify that we should make the yes/no decision based on an awareness of the situation (the BIG picture) and not because of desired responses. You are getting at an interesting aspect of negotiation here: you need to know your negotiation partner and therein have the right strategy for being able to say “no” and still leave the door open to get to ‘yes’. The act that all human communication comes down to knowing how to listening. Saying ‘no’ is hard and takes a lot of work to do it right. If you don’t think so, then you’re doing it wrong!”

Robert C. Mussehl, Owner, Law Office of Mussehl, LLC:

“My negotiation goal has always been to achieve a win/win settlement, which includes my clear goal at mediation. Going to trial is a last resort for my law practice, but I am never afraid to take my case to court. If the last offer is final one, and it is an obvious low ball, I deeply believe it is in the best interest of my clients to litigate their claims. I say NO when I make the decision to take my case to a jury or judge for a final decision.”

Salary Negotiations: When retired professionals including Ohio expert executive Jill, reminisce about their careers and thinking about the Art of Saying No, they recall salary negotiations. There were so many occasions that called for a no but instead they relied on verbal promises that were never fulfilled. This is an excellent reminder that when planning for salary negotiations, consider the alternatives. These alternatives gives one more power to say no, if necessary.

Saying "no" is usually associated with rejection. Maybe this needs to be reframed as thinking about the long term rather than the short term. Saying "no" can be a way to grow.

Saying "no" may be a way to lead to a much more workable and satisfying agreement.

The way to say "no" is personal depending on culture, age, professionalism and circumstances.

Saying No is a powerful tool in the Negotiator’s Tool box.


See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu. Clicking on any book will lead one to the discounted Amazon site.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

Maximum Influence, The 12 Universal Laws of Power Persuasion, Kurt W. Mortensen.

Say What You Mean. Get What You Want, A Businessperson’s Guide to Direct Communication, Judith C. Tingley, Ph.D.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie. “The first-and still the best book of its kind-to lead you to success.”

How to Negotiate Like a Child-Unleash the Little Monster Within to Get Everything You Want, Bill Adler, Jr., ISBN 0-8144-7294-X

Making Your Case-The Art of Persuading Judges, Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner,, ISBN 978-0-314-18471-9


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