Saying 'No': Key to Success at Work, Home and School

When you boil it down, much of life is spent negotiating. Whether you’re trying to land a job, secure a pay raise, or convince your teenager that curfews matter, it’s all about the power of negotiation. And, according to Jim Camp, founder at Camp Negotiation Institute, most of us go about it all wrong.

The playground approach - where even if you lose, you’re still a “winner”- is, well, useless in the real world, according to Camp. “Win-win” is dead. Compromise is the weakest solution.” But Camp doesn’t promote the “screw-the-other-guy, take-no-prisoners” approach. That’s not productive, either. Instead, his advice is to take a cue from what is arguably the most honest and manipulative human on the face of the planet: any 2 year old. As Camp sees it--and he has an impressive record to back this up--the word you want to hear in any negotiation is not “yes,” but “no.”

“We have a cultural aversion to ‘no,’ says Camp. “We want to win, to please.” We feel guilty when we say “no,” and rejected when we hear it from the other side. While hearing either of the two alternatives--yes and maybe--might make you feel better while negotiating, they get you nowhere. In Camp’s words, they “are wishy-washy, lead to compromise and false hope.” They’re uttered by the individual who feels bad or uncomfortable saying no and just wants to end the conversation-with a smile, of course. However, when either side in a negotiation says “no,” that’s when you know where you stand and can move forward. “It’s adult, rational, open, honest.”

Getting to no is the hard part. The biggest hindrance to negotiating is our emotions, says Camp, who has just written NO, The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home. “Decisions are made emotionally.” Whether you’re asking a customer to switch to your company’s widgets, or a child to change their behavior, or a potential employer to offer you a job, “change is scary,” says Camp.

The key is to help the other side feel comfortable saying no.

In fact, Camp wants you to invite the other side to do so. Before you even present your idea or proposal, he suggests you begin a negotiation by saying something along the lines of, “If you don’t like what I’m going to propose or it won’t work for you, I want you to say no. Is that fair?”

Camp says by acknowledging the other party’s right to veto, the barriers come down, and you don’t appear needy. Since no maintains the status quo, telling the person that it’s OK to say this makes them feel safe. Their defenses come down, giving you a shot at an honest give-and-take negotiation.

At the same time, you’ve also got to control your own emotions when negotiating. “If you appear needy, guys like me will eat you alive,” says Camp. If you come across as if “you want to make a deal, but don’t need to then you have a chance- even if you have to fake it.”

If the person takes you up on the offer of just saying no, don’t take it personally. “‘No is just a decision, it can be changed. I can try harder to help you see my point,” says Camp. No gives you a starting point, a chance to understand the real issues and hopefully demonstrate how you can help solve them.

You need to go into any negotiation situation prepared. Understand that your mission and purpose has nothing to do with meeting your sales quota, but in helping the other party succeed at whatever they do. How would they and their company benefit by switching to your widgets? Perhaps the real reason has nothing to do with cost. Even if your product is slightly more expensive, they might be more reliable than the competition, and mean fewer customer complaints. Or, you find out that the owner’s brother-in-law is the supplier, in which case at least you know you’re wasting your time.

If you still hit a wall, ask yourself if you’re really dealing with the right person. Always “negotiate with the qualified,” says Camp. Are you talking to the person who is empowered to make the decision you’re looking for? In the case of widgets, “it’s not the purchasing agent,” says Camp. “All they care about is getting a price reduction, not increasing market share. But the CEO does, the product manager does.”

Take this situation of locking in a lower mortgage interest rate: You call the bank that issued the loan and find out that it was sold to a big firm across the country. “Don’t be foolish and think you know what can and can’t be done,” advises Camp. “Ask the president of your local bank to help you get [in touch with] the people who bought your mortgage. And don’t stop until you get to the decision maker.” Once you do, be prepared to “create a vision” that shows why your proposal is in the other side’s best interest, such as, “I’ll be able to afford making payments and you’ll have a good loan instead of a default.”

When it comes to finding a job, Camp advises job seekers back away from the normal approach of emailing and posting a generic resume for openings. If you’ve got your heart set on working at a particular firm, you need to know its history, the CEO’s history and company data. “People don’t do this anymore,” says Camp. “It’s a terrible mistake.” He suggests going to the CEO’s office, and asking, “Who can I talk to be part of this company?” If nothing else, the image created by enthusiasm, putting in the effort to get to the door will make you stand out. “Even if you get rejected, send a thank-you note to the CEO for the chance to talk to the guard at the gate. You can’t be like millions of sheep. You’ve got to break the mold.”

The same thing applies to getting accepted at the college of your choice. If you really want to attend a school, write a letter to a professor in your field of study. Explain to the professor why you are interested in the school, and that you are trying to see the president of the university. While Camp admits this takes work, he maintains that, “It’s easier than ever because people don’t expect you to be that enthusiastic.”

As a father and grandfather, Camp is no stranger to the frustrations associated with getting your kids to behave a certain way. But he insists the same strategies apply: be clear in what you offer and “create a vision of opportunity” in the young person that makes them see that what you’re proposing is in their best interest. You also have to be firm and consistent in following through. His advice for dealing with teenagers? “Just say ‘no’ until your tongue bleeds.”

“Discipline at an early age is key,” says Camp. “It brings respect. Lay out ground rules in such a way that you never have to waver. The fewer the better.” For instance, he says, “No drugs. If you do drugs, find some other place to live.” If tempted, this gives the child an out. “My dad will disown me” generally suffices.

Find yourself endlessly arguing with your daughter about the need to get good grades in order to get into college? Try Camp’s approach: “If you don’t want to go to college that’s fine with me. Just say ‘No.’” Magically, you’ve just empowered your rebellious teenager. She feels safe to maintain the status quo, and defenses come down. You’re treating her like an adult. Now maybe you’ll get to the real issues, such as a fear of not being as successful in college as an older sibling.

“I teach my kids ‘mission and purpose’ at the earliest age,” says Camp. “What are your continuing tasks and responsibilities to the family?” To him, this includes bringing good favor upon the family unit, doing well in school, being involved in activities and making good friends. It’s more about honestly trying than about succeeding. “Mission and purpose is the ‘why’ behind what you do. When a child has a sense of mission, it’s shocking what they will do.”

Take it from the guy who’s the father of three college quarterbacks.

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist and an instructor in Franklin Templeton Investments' global Academy. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

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