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Rule No. 12. Smile and Say ‘No!’ until Your Tongue Bleeds

Attributed to Harvey Mackay in his pithy book “Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive”, I like this adage because it is, like many other aspects of negotiation, so counter-intuitive. In his view (and ours), you’ll be amazed how much the terms of your deals will improve when you learn to say ‘No’.

However, there is a heck of a lot more to this expression than first meets the eye.


Why smile? We are in a serious negotiation. Surely we don’t need to smile – we look to look tough and uncompromising? Well, yes and no. Clearly, the use of a smile needs to be appropriate to the situation and an ill-timed smile can do a lot of damage. Nevertheless, there are times when a smile is absolutely the right thing – even if you have to fake it. So, when you need to look assured and confident of your position (for example, when you say no to the other party), a genuine and warm smile (but certainly not a fake smile) is a force multiplier.

So, what is it about smiling that is so effective in negotiation? Researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön and the Toulouse School of Economics devised a smile experiment to test if smiling could induce trust and thus, if a smile could become profitable. As it turns out, yes, smiling is an “honest” signal to the recipient – provided it is a genuine smile. We see a person who smiles as more cooperative and are therefore more inclined to do business with them.

On the other hand, smiling in a negotiation at the moment when the other party is most squeezed and after you have leveraged and exploited your position of power is going to rub salt into the wound for them – and they won’t forget that. Similarly, if you come to an agreement in a negotiation and you are really happy, it may not be a good idea to show just how happy you are by displaying a big, beamy, self-satisfied grin, because it might lead the other person to think that you did rather better than they did.

So, yes smile, but don’t grin inanely like a Cheshire cat. Use the smile wisely and when you need it to ensure it delivers the reaction you want.

Say No

The little word ‘No’ is a very powerful message to send. When used in a negotiation it is even more powerful.As with so many words, it is not what you say but how you say it. If you want the other party to improve their offer, when you deliver your rejection of the last one, do so in a manner that telegraphs your intent to continue the negotiation or the other party may give up prematurely. Hence, the smiling piece is really quite important as it signals that you cannot accept that proposal, but you are open to a better one – we call this a ‘warm no’.Be warned, though, because if you say no in a cold and harsh way, the other side will, in all likelihood, end the negotiation prematurely.Similarly, if you know the negotiation is fruitless, make the rejection clear and direct. Then move on and don’t waste time offering false hope.

I tell my sales teams and clients that the negotiation does not really begin until the other party says no.If they say yes to your proposal, you are simply an order taker.It is only once they say no that you need to really start negotiating.Ten years after leaving a full time corporate sales role and after scores of mediations, speaking and training events and dozens of consulting clients later, I know from experience that the word "no" signals the beginning, not the end, of any value-creating negotiation.

And yet, in my experience, the vast majority of sales people do not like saying no.They are taught that effective selling is all about getting to yes.So, a no is a very unwelcome speed bump on the way!As I described in Rule No 9 (Give away nothing for free), sellers are too often overly enthusiastic, accommodating, lose-to-win negotiators who are soft on the people and soft on the problem.To be more effective in a negotiation, they need to become more focused on the commercial outcome without damaging important relationships with their customers.Thus, the art of being able to say no assertively but nicely is a key skill. So, make the word no part of your negotiating vocabulary. In addition, don’t stop asking when the other side says no; consider it the start of negotiating, not the end.

Until Your Tongue Bleeds

You won’t be surprised to read that we do not expect you to inflict genuine bleeding injuries on your tongue – it is a little too valuable for that!But what we mean is that you should persist and be determined even when you feel you ought to give in.

Anyone with young children will tell you just how good they are at negotiation.One of the reasons for this is their relentless persistence.Most parents can tell you about a repetitive argument they’ve had with their child – the child, being persistent and having absolutely no sense of time pressure, simply repeats the same argument over and over again until the parent loses patience and gives in.

Good negotiators are persistent. The Russians, Arabs, and Chinese don’t hesitate to test their opponent’s resolve by repeating their arguments over and over. An American negotiating with the Vietnamese to bring an end to the war reported that for two years they came to the talks every morning and ceremoniously said the same thing with little or no change. It almost drove the Americans crazy, especially as they kept moving their position to try to achieve a compromise, but the Vietnamese just smiled and held firm.In short, persistence has the power to break down the walls of resistance.

So, overcome those inhibitions and keep saying No, No, No, No.According to Harvey Mackay, no-one ever went broke because they said no too often!And to quote another great guru of negotiation, Dr. Chester L. Karrass, “learn to say “No” at least once more, even when you like and are willing to accept the other’s offer. Then say “Yes.” “.Try it, it really works.

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