I like to think of asking questions as a road to information. Sometimes it’s a superhighway and sometimes it’s a dirt road. Sometimes it’s smoothly paved and other times it’s filled with potholes – and on occasion, what looks like a major roadblock.
My point here is that not every question you ask will elicit a positive response – no matter how good you get at asking. And no one likes rejection.
Fear of hearing the word “no” is the number one reason people don’t ask in the first place.
But there are plenty of strategies you can use – before and after you’ve popped the question – that will lessen the pain, offer some defense, and perhaps even alter the outcome.
First, some general words of advice:
- “No” does not equal failure.
- Practice with a safety net. Ask nonthreatening questions that a) won’t require much time or thought from the people you ask, and b) will let you experience the pleasure of small victories. These victories will help you build the confidence to handle unfavorable answers.
- Don’t take it personally. During my time in sales, I learned about “swswswsw”: some will, some won’t, so what, someone is waiting. In other words, you may have to get through a few “no’s” in order to find someone who will say “yes.” So take it all with a grain of salt.
- Humor is the best medicine. Thomas Leonard, the founder of Coachville, liked to use this humorous response: “Is that a no for now, a no just for the near future, a no forever, or a no, I don’t like you?” He’d say the last part with a slight elongation of the words and a hint of laughter, indicating that the issue wasn’t a deal breaker.
And most importantly: Think of “No” as just the beginning.
“No” doesn’t always mean “no.” In fact, asking is often the first step in a negotiation. It can be the prelude to bargaining over price at the market, requesting a raise from your boss, or convincing that person in marketing that he really does want to have dinner with you. As an employee, complementing your asking skills with serious negotiating skills is a winning combination.
Problem-solve, haggle, bargain: call it what you will, negotiating is an exploratory process of give and take. The key to arriving at the best possible outcome is be open and flexible – knowing that the other party may be driven by a completely different set of beliefs and interests. And keep in mind that people will often ask for more than they expect to receive.
I encourage you to explore the possibility that while some “no’s” may seem final, the opportunities they present often yield interesting results. Here are some additional tips to guide you:
- Some people treat hearing a “no” or “maybe” as the beginning of a journey. They approach the starting line with a smile and the determination to get precisely what they want. If this is your style, you might choose to inform the person being asked that you won’t quit until you get a “yes.” The person will either view you as a pain in the ass or admire your guts and determination.
- If this is not your style, decide up front whether you will accept any flexibility in the answer. This will make it easier for the person being asked. For instance, asking the car salesperson to throw in the Bose system for free may succeed if you’re buying a $250,000 sports car, but is probably the start of a negotiation for a $32,000 sedan. Always consider starting high and be prepared to finish slightly lower, as opposed to starting low and expecting to end up with more.
- View the person who is answering your question with a “no” or “maybe” as actually saying, “Let’s explore some options here.” And you are the one leading the exploration by asking more questions.
- These are some of my favorite – and most effective – responses to open the door to further discussion:
- Or try countering with: “‘No’ doesn’t always mean ‘no.’ Would you mind helping me make sure that we’re both on the same page?” There may be a way to find a mutual high ground by exploring the options.
- Most people want to say “yes” to someone they know and like. Try to find out why they are saying “no.” It could be they don’t like you, don’t have time, or perceive a risk.
- Make sure the other person understands what you’re asking. What you envision as a clear question or request may not be so clear to them.
“What has to happen in order for you to agree?”
“What do I have to do in order for you to feel comfortable with my request?”
“How can we make this negotiable so both of our needs are addressed?”
And always remember: People are more willing to change their minds or consider negotiating with someone who is smiling back at them.