How to… Turn ‘No’ Into ‘Yes’

By Heather Campbell

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What’s one of the most feared words in the English Language? – ‘No.’

This simple two-letter word really gets in the way of great conversations. That’s why it’s the focus of this third blog in my series on how to have truly productive conversations.

Hearing ‘no’ (or fear of hearing it) stops conversations being productive because:

  • We don’t have the conversation at all – we think “what’s the point?” if there is a risk of  getting ‘no’ as the answer
  • We become defensive as soon as we hear the word ‘no’ and argue back, rather than seeking to understand the reasons why the other person has said ‘no’ – this just gets the other person’s back up too and the conversation quickly becomes unproductive
  • We give up as soon as we hear it because we’re scared we’ll hear it again – and that would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it? Keeping our ego intact is a key driver for all us human beings – and hearing ‘no’ twice in one conversation really puts a big dent in it.

While naturally it’s much more fun and rewarding to hear ‘yes’ when we make a request or put forward a suggestion, ‘no’ isn’t nearly as big a problem as people tend to think it is. If you can move away from hearing ‘no’ as a big barrier – or even the end of the line – and instead hear it simply as useful information, you’ll find that ‘no’ is often a precursor to achieving far more than you originally thought you could. Actually,  ‘no’ in this context often doesn’t mean ‘no’ at all. It has a whole range of other meanings, such as:

  • “I’m not sure my boss would like the idea”
  • “I don’t have the budget right now”
  • “I don’t see how this will help me achieve my priorities”
  • “I have other ideas that might be a better fit”
  • “I don’t like your idea because it’s better than mine and might make me look bad as a result”
  • “I’m tired and in a rush to get home, so it’s easier to say ‘no’ than risk opening up the conversation”

And so on…

Managers who have productive conversations recognise that ‘no’ has many different meanings and – rather than giving up, backing off or arguing back when they hear it – set about finding out what it really means in each instance.

Finding this out is deceptively simple. Here’s how to respond to ‘no’ effectively…

(1)  Acknowledge that the other person has said ‘no’

This is particularly important for individuals who become defensive and argue back when they hear the word. They tend to simply dig their hin and push their point of view. Instead, it is essential to recognise what the other person has said.

  • “I’m surprised to hear you don’t want to go ahead”
  • “I’m disappointed to hear you don’t like the idea”
  • “I’m sorry this doesn’t appeal to you”

…are examples of ways to acknowledge ‘no’ – and there are many, many others. When the other person hears this acknowledgement, they will be much more open to the next stage of the conversation which is…

(2) Ask a question to find out their reason(s) for saying ‘no’

  • “What is it you don’t like about the idea?”
  • “What concerns do you have about the suggestion?”

You need to know the answer to this question so that you can…

(3) Ask the ‘barrier-busting’ question

Which is:

  • “If we could [remove the barrier], would you [comply]?”

For example:

  • “If we could put the idea together in a way that appeals to your boss, would you be willing to consider the idea?”
  • “If the budget were available, would you be interested in my proposal?”
  • “If I could outline how this can help you progress with your priorities, would you be willing to set aside some time for this?”

Note that, when using the “If… then” format, you aren’t asking the other person to commit to the idea – simply to consider it, be interested in it, or give you some more time. Your goal here is to help people move from saying ‘no’ to saying ‘yes’ – not make them – so asking them to immediately commit to your idea, on the basis that you’ll remove the barrier they highlighted, will probably be too big a leap to encourage them to move from the negative to the affirmative straight away.

However, asking them to consider or show interest in your idea, provided you can overcome the barrier that they have given, is a small step – and they are ultimately more likely to say ‘yes’ as a result.

 Image courtesy of ratch0013 /

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