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  • Jonathan E. Pearl

"Yeah, but no but..yeah!"

Updated: Oct 2


As mediators we are taught to ask ‘open’ questions, designed not to elicit a short “yes” or “no” response. We want the parties to elaborate, to open up, to give us extra data, to expand their dialogue. Open questions are the wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before. But in everyday life people often ask short questions that require a “Yes”/ “No” answer – and this is especially so in negotiation, where parties are looking for clarity, and a commitment from the other side. In negotiation open-ended questions can leave too much wiggle room, inviting the answerer to dodge the question, or lie by omission. So what’s a better answer: “yes” or “no”?

Some people will tell you that if someone asks you to do something you should always say “yes”. If not, there’s a chance you’ll miss out on something: a party, a new job etc. “Yes” supports risk-taking, courage, and an open-hearted approach to life which can lead to great personal success and happiness. And “Getting to Yes” (Fisher & Ury) has been widely touted as the ultimate aim of all negotiations. On the other hand over-familiarity with the positive has a downside. Being called a “Yes-man” has largely negative connotations: suggesting a lack of autonomy, sincerity, or even intelligence (think Jim Carey in the eponymous film).

Across a decade of conducting experiments, Vanessa Bohns and colleagues at Cornell University asked study participants to make requests of more than 14,000 strangers. In a major study Bohns had her researchers ask to borrow a stranger’s mobile phone to make a call. The researchers estimated that it would take at least 10 requests to gain the requested use of a phone. They were amazed to discover that it took less than 6 tries on average to succeed in getting the loan of a phone from a stranger.

It can be nerve-racking to be the one asking for a favour, but it can be just as nerve-wracking to be on the receiving end of a request. According to Bohns the strength of social norms makes it much harder to say “no” to a request than it is to say “yes”. In another of Bohns’ studies, researchers asked strangers to vandalise a library book by writing the word “pickle” in pen on one of the pages. Although many of those asked in the survey voiced some discomfort or reticence about the request, a staggering 64% agreed to vandalize the book.

As any parent knows: when the little people push hard for a “Yes” it can quickly become tiresome, and can actually result in a firm “no”. At the very least a hard push for a “yes” often leads to a delay in any decision. Saying “Yes”, making a firm commitment, often makes people feel vulnerable: vulnerable to losing time or resources, or money, or (worst still) to being exploited. And even when people say “yes” you can’t always be sure that they are meaning what they are saying.

There are at least 4-kinds of “yes”:

  • Fake “Yes”: This is the one where the person really plans on saying “No” but feels that saying “Yes” is an easier way to avoid an unpleasant scene.

  • Confirmation: This is a generally innocent, reflexive response to a black or white question. It’s the “sure”, “I don’t mind if I do”, “naturally”, “by all means”-type of “yes”. It’s the sort of “yes” you say when someone asks, maybe for the third or fourth time - “Are you feeling better today?” It carries no weight, and could be accurate, or (just as easily) not true at all – but rather (a) an attempt to maintain a certain image to others and themselves (e.g., I am unselfish, cooperative, accommodating; I am indispensable), or (b) reflecting a fear of losing something (a spouse’s love, a friendship, a job etc.), or (c) said out of a feeling of social or moral obligation.

  • Confirmation/ Non-Confirmation: This is the type of “yes” where someone nods their head, and smiles and makes a “hmmm” noise. But, can you be sure they are really confirming?

  • Commitment: This “yes” is the real deal. It’s the one you use (hopefully) when taking your marriage vows, or signing a contract. It’s not as common as the previous 2 types – which is why we traditionally dress-up, open our wallets, and party when people actually do it.

Interestingly, the Japanese language does not have words that translate strictly in English to “yes” or “no”. And some languages do not answer “yes” with single word meaning “yes”. Welsh, Finish and Mandarin are among the languages that typically employ an echo response (repeating the verb with either an affirmative or negative form) rather than using words for “yes” and “no”, though such languages can also have words broadly similar to “yes” and “no”. Echo responses avoid the problem of deciphering what an unadorned “yes” means in response to a negative question. When an English person answers “yes” to the question "You don't like strawberries?" the answer is ambiguous. The Welsh response “ydw”(meaning “I like”) has no ambiguity.

We are taught to not say “no”. As young children and teens, we have the word “no” drummed out of us. We are taught to do what our parents say and what authority figures tell us. In short “No” is not positive. It's tough to deliver, in large part because we have a gut sense of how it will be received—that is, not well.

Neuroscience supports our hunch that “No” is rarely going to be well-received. The human brain is hardwired to respond to “No” more quickly, more intensely, and more persistently than to a positive signal. “No” is stronger than “Yes” in your brain. The psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, was the first person to identify the “negativity bias” of the human brain. This means that negative experiences have a more enduring impact on emotion than positive events of equal intensity. The brain reacts pleasantly to positive stimuli but wildly painfully to negative stimuli.


Research by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago measured the electrical output of the cerebral cortex to demonstrate that, across a variety of situations, negative information leads to a swift and outsize surge in activity. One personal slight lingers longer than one compliment. But the ability to rapidly detect bad news and weight it heavily evolved for a very good reason—to keep humans out of harm's way.


This explains why we are far more upset by losing a pile of money than we are pleased by gaining an equal pile of money; interpersonal events (negative first impressions are difficult to overcome); or personal information (negative job feedback has a much more profound effect than positive information). And because we know that getting bad news produces a stronger reaction than equivalent good news is probably why very of us like to deliver it. Saying “no” has a tendency to hurt others in the way that it hurts us, and so many of us avoid saying it. Plus - saying “no” can lead to conflict – which people also naturally like to avoid.


But saying a clear “no” to things can be helpful to others – saving them time and the creation false expectations. It can also be liberating for the “naysayer”. Saying “no” can mean more time to devote to activities you need or want to do, less stress, anger and resentment, and a greater sense of control over one’s life. Successful people say “no” all the time. Apparently, Google co-founder Larry Page, says “no” to any meetings where there will be no decision maker present. And Dharmesh Shah, Founder of HubSpot, has a strict policy of not saying “yes” to anything over the phone.

In short: saying “yes” makes us feel vulnerable and saying “no” makes us feel protected.

Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 US Presidential Campaign had some great soundbites which played on this basic premise, and which probably won him the election. During the final debate in the run up to polling day Reagan asked the electorate some rhetorical questions, including: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” And “Is America more respected than it was four years ago?”. The response of the electorate was a resounding “no”. But it was not a sure thing that Reagan would have been elected had he asked the US electorate to positively assess his own policies – prior to this the polls had been a neck-and-neck.


Joe Biden’s 2020 Presidential campaign is using similar psychology in its advertising, running the line: “Does Anyone Believe There Will Be Less Violence In America If Donald Trump Is Re-elected?” America is a violent place with over 300m guns in circulation. Not all of the violence in the US can be laid at the door of President Donald J. Trump. But some of it can, and he does not have a reputation for dialling-down the rhetoric. Asking the question: “Do you believe that there will be less Violence in America if Joe Biden is elected President?” may have produced some “yes” answers, but in the absence of any track-record as actual POTUS, and the fact that the ‘gun issue’ is intractable, the answers may also have included many “no’s”.


Although it seems counter-intuitive “No” is often the beginning of a negotiation, not the end of it. Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator and author of “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It”, says that “No” is one of the most powerful things you can get your negotiation partner to say. When your opponent says so “no” they get a feeling of security and control – whether or not that is actually the case.

No” provides a great negotiation opportunity for the parties to clarify what they really want by eliminating what they don’t want. No” can mean:

  • I am not ready to agree.. yet;

  • I am uncomfortable with agreeing;

  • I don’t understand what the deal means for me;

  • I can’t afford the deal;

  • I need more information;

  • I’d prefer talking to someone else before I commit.

None of these “No’s” is a locked door. Quite the contrary, a “No” can do a lot:

  • It can allow the real issues to be brought forward.

  • It can protect you from making rash and poor decisions—and course-correcting ineffective ones.

  • It slows things down, giving you time to analyse decisions and agreements.

  • It helps you feel safe, secure, and emotionally comfortable.

  • It often motivates everyone to move things forward.

Tips

  • First, questions which include the words “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” will all lead to “yes” or “no” answers. Questions which include the words “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” will lead to people giving some thought to their answers, and provide much more information.

  • If you’re trying to get someone’s attention, don’t start with: “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Instead ask, “Is now a bad time to talk?” Either you get: “Yes, it is a bad time” followed by a good time to have a call, or a request to go away. Or you'll get: “No, it’s not” followed by total focus.

  • Saying “No” makes the speaker feel safe, secure, and in control, so trigger it. That’s why “Is now a bad time to talk?” is always better than “Do you have a few minutes to talk?

  • If a potential business partner is ignoring you, contact them with a clear and concise “No”-oriented question that suggests that you are ready to walk away. “Have you given up on this project?” usually works wonders. And if the answer is "Yes” you can stop wasting your time.

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