5 Ways to Deal with the First No December 7 2011

A couple of days ago, I had lunch with a friend who’s a senior leader in a well known organization. He’s in charge of the communications function and recently led a team that put together a very successful first time event that got a ton of positive national media attention. We were talking about what he learned from leading that process. While some of the details of our conversation were off the record, he gave his permission to share his biggest lesson on the Next Level Blog.

It all comes down to what do you do with the first no?

Leaders who are trying to do something unprecedented are invariably going to hear the word, no, a lot.  It may not be as direct as that. It might be softened as, “We don’t do things that way,” or “Sorry, that’s impossible.” My friend heard a lot of responses like that as he and his team worked to turn their big event idea into a reality. Looking back on a successful outcome, he realizes that the critical element in making it happen was how they dealt with the first no.

I asked him what his options were for dealing with the first no. Here’s what he had to say:

  • Take It:  Your first option is to just take the no at face value. This might be appropriate in some cases, but if it’s the only response in your repertoire, you’re not going to get much done.
  • Ask Why:  This was my friend’s go-to move when he heard no. He would politely ask why it couldn’t be done. It was often the case that the person saying no would realize there wasn’t any other reason for saying no beyond it hadn’t been done before.
  • Ask What If:  That was the point at which my friend and his team would start asking, “What if…?” What if questions engage the other party in a problem solving dialogue instead of a just say no monologue.
  • Do Your Homework:  My friend and his team made sure they did their homework before they even asked the question. As he told me, “You want to make sure it’s the right person saying no.” Don’t allow things to get hung up at levels where the authority to say no doesn’t really exist.
  • Pick Your Spots: As my friend said, “You have to work to live another day.” In other words, you have to develop a sense of what’s a deal killer and what doesn’t really matter that much. Let the no’s go on things that don’t matter so much.

So, the chances are excellent that you’ve heard no when trying to lead change or do something new. What’s your best advice for dealing with the first no?

13 Responses to “5 Ways to Deal with the First No”

  1. Meredith Kimbell says:

    These are important skills. I'd add "Make it easy to say 'Yes.'" It can be valuable to enroll enough decision influencers so that when the final decision maker is asked, she or he is lookng at a group of people nodding support.

    • Scott Eblin says:

      Love that addition Meredith – make it easy to say yes. Seems like a big part of that is to take sometime to understand what's in it for them. Agree or disagree? What else do you think makes it easy to say yes?

  2. John says:

    This is a great post, Scott!
    Hearing a no was a big issue for me when I just started doing sales. I would get immediately discouraged and wouldn't even try to continue the conversation or even make other calls.
    After a while I discovered that many times people will only say no to a specific point in your pitch, and if you work around it and find a compromise beneficial for both parties, a deal can be saved.

    • Scott Eblin says:

      Love the sales perspective you're bringing to this John. If you think about it, life is a series of sales calls whether or not we're officially in "Sales."

      What are some of your best tips for working it around and finding that mutually beneficial compromise?

      • John says:

        I usually try to focus customer's attention on the long-term relationship and benefits from it vs. just a current sale. It's important to establish trust by being willing to explore possible alternatives. I learned that it is easier to negotiate if you create a dialogue – ask questions (just like you said) and try to understand why a customer is hesitant to make a decision.

  3. Nicole O'Brien says:

    Make sure you keep developing the idea again and again until you get to a product everyone wants to say yes to. Often the first no is really just saying you’re not quite there yet.

  4. Scott, Great Post! I also worked in sales for a while, and your point on 'asking why' is a key to getting the best opportunity to the 'what if' in my experience. I always asked why so they could get their reasons on the table and I could make it easy to say yes (as Meredith suggested). This opportunity allows you to genuinely listen to them, allows them to clarify their concerns, and address them from their specific roadblocks to get them the solution they are seeking (if you can).

  5. Lisa says:

    Excellent Post! Listening to them tell me why it's a "no" right now, often turns up some misunderstanding as to the proposal suggested – and sometimes that turns it into a yes! It comes down to how well we listen (in my opinion) and our sincere attempt to find a win-win situation for everyone.

  6. C.P. says:

    This was very helpful for me, as someone who lets "no" mean much more than it often does at the time.

  7. Leigh.S. says:

    Always anticipate a 'No!' reaction and then do your homework or research to find ways that your project / task can be achieved. Most bosses don't like change and will want to know what's in it for them or the company, accentuate the tangible benefits to your organisation and you're on to a winner. Again they may have a valid point why something can't be done one way so have a plan B ready. Sometimes bosses just don't like it because you thought of it and they didn't, hardly a valid reason why it can't be done!

    • Scott Eblin says:

      Right on, Leigh. Definitely have to account for and answer the "So what" and the "what's in it for me" questions to make a yes more likely.

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