Follow Your NOs

Disagreeing without being disagreeable
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the July 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

I once saw a cartoon with a caption reading, "Salesmanship begins when the customer says, 'No!' " Likewise, negotiation begins with disagreement. How you react to the dispute is often more important than what it's about. Keeping conflict from becoming a catfight is one skill that distinguishes the seasoned negotiator.

A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size (Owl Books/Henry Holt). You can reach him at

Are We Disagreeing Yet?

Keep in mind that just because it sounds as if you're disagreeing, it doesn't mean you actually are. Think twice before you grimace, snarl or bark at the other side. First, make sure it's not a simple miscommunication. Isolate the phrase that makes you bristle, and ask your opponent, "When you say such-and-such, what exactly do you mean?" Also, consider whether it's the tone of voice or attitude that tweaks you. For example, some people always sound as if they're yelling; it's not about you or your deal-that's just the way they talk. In many cases, you'll find there's no dispute and nothing worth arguing about.

On the other hand, once it's clear you disagree with your opponents, it's crucial to probe beneath the surface and find out what they really want. This might sound trite. Emptor emit quam minimo potest, venditor vendit quam maximo potest, or "the buyer buys for as little as possible, the seller sells for as much as possible." But consider this classic scenario: Two kids squabble over the last orange in the fridge. Their father hears the ruckus, enters the kitchen and, without a word, thinks of a solution: He slices the fruit in equal halves and gives one to each child. Yet they're each disappointed. Why? Because one kid wanted to eat the pulp, and the other just wanted to bake with the rind!

Don't jump to conclusions. Try to uncover the other side's underlying interests. What you learn may not only surprise you, but also pave the way for an easy solution. Often, differences are what make agreements possible. Why settle for either/or when you can have win/win?

The Value Of No

In negotiations, you'll often have issues you can't seem to resolve, even though you jawbone them to death. At such times, don't be afraid to agree to disagree. Unless it's an obvious dealbreaker, consider putting touchy points aside until after you've settled the easy ones. Flexibility, compromise and creative solutions come more easily once each side trusts and understands the other a little better.

When all you can say is no, say it diplomatically. Give a plausible explanation for why you can't concede a point, not a crappy, high-handed or arbitrary one. Respect opponents' intelligence and they won't resent you. The explanation may also help them save face with their colleagues.

And at the very least, hear them out. Your hands might be tied for a variety of reasons. You may have to send the other side back empty-handed. But if you give them a few minutes to vent, complain or protest, they'll feel better. Let them whine a little bit, and (maybe) they won't tell everybody that you're an ogre.

On the other hand, being difficult, terse and sour has strategic advantages. I once worked for someone whose favorite cartoon was a picture of a gruff executive poised over a handheld buzzer attached to a huge scoreboard filled with lightbulbs spelling out the word "NO." The caption read, "You can run it by me, but I'm pretty sure I know what the answer's going to be."

Truly, the leathery countenance that says "don't even think of asking" can discourage even the sturdiest opponent. And a flat no is often the best way to quash inappropriate or idiotic demands. Just remember that being known by many expletives only works while you're in the one-up position. At low points in a career, such a reputation is a double-edged sword. There's a big difference between being savvy and tough, and simply being a jerk.

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