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“No” Is the First Two Letters of “Not Yet”

How to win the first negotiation with yourself.

Key points

  • We are constantly negotiating with people, including ourselves.
  • A common fear of rejection causes us to avoid asking for things we need or want in our careers or for personal growth.
  • In the workplace, people say “no” less often than you might fear.

How many times have you heard the answer “no” directed at you today?

Not once? Fair enough. How about yesterday? And throughout the past week? The entire past month? If you haven’t been told “no” by anyone during that entire time, then I gently suggest that you might not be taking enough positive risks or asking enough for the things that you legitimately want and need (I say “might” because it really does depend).

Of course, context and nuance are important here, as with all statements I make on this blog, especially the stronger, more opinionated statements (e.g., most people say and do whatever they feel like instead of what’s effective). Granted, if you haven’t recently asked anyone for something you want or need, it might just be that you’re genuinely in a place of contentment and don’t particularly have anything that you want or need. That is absolutely valid, and no one can judge your situation better than you. However, it’s safe to assume that many of you out there do, in fact, want or need something but, for whatever combination of reasons, just aren’t asking for it. Reader, if this description matches you, let’s talk.

Don’t Lose the First Negotiation

In their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, authors and Harvard Law School professors Roger Fisher and William Ury make the case that negotiation is a fundamental feature of human interaction, and whether we consciously realize it or not, people are constantly negotiating. They argue that because of this, negotiation skills are critical to success in work and life in general.

But here is something that we don’t generally think about. We’re not only constantly negotiating with other people, but we’re also constantly negotiating with ourselves. And far too often, people lose this negotiation with themselves. I say “losing” (even though both “sides” in this negotiation are still within a single self) because the side that wants or needs something is losing to the side that concludes, for whatever reasons, that they shouldn’t bother asking. In many cases (though certainly not every case), the side that wants or needs something could be considered the “real” you, while the side that concludes it’s not worth asking is being driven by fear.

An All-Too-Common Fear

At its core, the fear of getting “no” for an answer is a fear of rejection, which is very common. So if you generally avoid asking for something out of the fear of getting “no” for an answer, know first of all that you are not alone. Not only is the fear of rejection common, but some people experience it intensely. Reminding yourself of this can help with any feelings of shame, inadequacy, or low self-esteem, which can make the fear of rejection even worse and potentially result in a negative, self-fulfilling cycle.

One way to overcome this pattern is to realize that, in real life, people actually say “no” to requests far less often than we fear in our imaginations. There is an abundance of research supporting this. In one famous 1978 study, researchers had actors approach people in line waiting to use a copy machine. The actors tested out three different approaches: (1) They asked if they could cut in line to use the Xerox machine with no explanation, (2) they asked if they could cut because they were in a rush, and (3) they asked if they could cut because they had to make some copies. If number three seems like a laughably bad reason to give since literally, everyone was in line because they wanted to make some copies, that would definitely be a reasonable assessment.

The first approach, while not spectacularly successful, was still surprisingly effective, with a 60 percent success rate, given that no reason at all was given for wanting to cut. The second approach, in which a credible reason was given, yielded a whopping 94 percent success rate. What would you guess the success rate for the third approach was? As irrational as it might seem, if your guess is that the success rate for the third approach was also high, you’d be correct though you might still be shocked by the result: a 93 percent success rate! In other words, using a laughably bad reason for wanting to cut in line was just 1 percent less effective than giving a pretty good reason for wanting to cut.

The moral of this real-life story? First, people actually tend to say “no” less often than you might fear. And second, there’s power in the word “because.” Even a bad reason is better than no reason at all, and even no reason at all can be more successful than you’d think (which, again, stresses the importance of simply asking).

Even “No” Isn’t Necessarily Bad

I’ve just addressed the common fear of getting “no” for an answer, and now I’ll address another fear. Despite the infrequency of it happening, what if you do get “no” for an answer? It’s still not the end of the world. As the title of this article suggests, the word “no” makes up the first two letters of “not yet.” What this basically means is that in many situations, though certainly not all, the “no” is a result of timing, circumstances, or perhaps presenting your request or proposal in a sub-optimal way. By making your request again in a more strategic way, perhaps you can dramatically increase your chances of getting a “yes.”

But before I get to that, there’s something I’d like to address because as I write this, I can already foresee some of the resulting questions, confusion, and even premature anger.

The S.O.S. Model

It is certainly not the case that this perspective of “no” being the first two letters of “not yet” is an appropriate viewpoint to take in every situation. We are living in an era of heightened sensitivity toward issues of personal boundaries and consent, and rightfully so. The #MeToo movement, for example, has helped more people realize the need to respect boundaries and understand that in some situations, “no” does mean “no.” It’s therefore important to realize that the principles I’ve discussed in this post mainly apply to career and organizational life and most of the ordinary situations that would come up within those contexts. While it’s true that dating is something that, for better or worse, inevitably occurs in the workplace, this would fall outside the parameters of what I’m talking about.

Do bargaining and negotiation also occur in romantic contexts? Absolutely. Does that mean, then, that some of these principles also apply to dating? Potentially. But dating and courtship (and, by extension, marriage) are their own complex areas that can’t be done justice in a few short paragraphs. In the context of this post, it is, therefore, simpler to leave them as separate topics and to focus on the contexts of work, career, and personal growth.

Even while limiting this discussion to the work and personal growth contexts, we should still remember to utilize the principle of S.O.S. (Self, Other Person, and Situation) that I introduced here. Who you are, who the other party is, and what the specific situation is—all of these things matter, must be assessed, and help determine which kinds of negotiation tactics are appropriate in which situations and when.


Langer, E. J., Blank, A., & Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of "placebic" information in interpersonal interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(6), 635–642.

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