Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Turn a “No” Into a “Yes”

Using the power of concessions and reciprocity in negotiating.

Key points

  • Only repetition, not reason, can conquer the fear of “no.”
  • The law of reciprocity states when someone gives something, the natural tendency is to give something back.
  • In negotiations, it's best to go for the big ask first—people will say yes more often than one might think.

This is the second part of a two-part series in which we explore why getting "no" for an answer in the context of work and organizational life isn’t necessarily a bad thing and how we can potentially turn a “no” into a “yes.” Part 1 can be found here.

As discussed previously, most people are so averse to getting no for an answer that they avoid asking for things entirely. This is a worse situation to put yourself in because then you are 100 percent guaranteed to not get what you want; whereas, as mentioned last time, if you just ask, there’s a pretty good chance people will say yes, even if you give them a bad reason or even no reason at all. There are therefore two types of negotiations that we need to become better at: the first one is with ourselves and the second one is with someone who has just told you no. This post will show you how to become better at both.

Win the First Negotiation With Yourself

In the last post, I offered some of the logical reasons, backed by studies and statistics, why the fear of “no” that so many people have is mostly an irrational one. However, while having some reason and logic to draw upon doesn’t hurt, we know all too well that reason and logic by themselves are not enough to influence behavior. For changing behavior, few things are as effective as the raw power of repetition—repeating something enough so that it gets burned into our neural pathways. It sounds simple enough, but there’s one problem: Repeating a new behavior until it becomes ingrained is difficult unless the behavior is rewarded, especially if you’re trying to replace an old behavior that you perceive (rightly or wrongly) as being rewarding. And sometimes just avoiding the pain of rejection by not making requests can seem like its own reward.

This is why I invite my students to engage in an activity in which the objective is to make sincere (but stretch) requests of others where the anticipated response is for the requestee to say “no.” You can only successfully get points towards completing the activity when someone tells you no, and you can’t cheat by making ridiculous requests such as, “Will you give me a million dollars?” The stretch request has to be within the realm of reasonableness, yet still be a big enough request so that there’s a pretty good chance of getting told no.

What this activity does is turn what’s normally perceived as a failure into a success, thereby making it a rewarding experience. But even if you’re not one of my students, there are still ways to do this activity to achieve your own success, with the eventual goal being that you keep doing the rewarding behavior until it becomes ingrained and you’re no longer so afraid of rejection. Find a willing friend or two and see who can collect the most "no"s, with the winner being treated to dinner by the others. Or just find an accountability partner to whom you have to report your progress, with the agreement being that if you succeed at collecting five "no"s then you get to treat yourself to something nice.

What’s great about this exercise is that you can’t go wrong with it. If you’re repeatedly told “no,” then you win the activity and, in the process, the repetition makes it easier to make requests. If people actually say “yes”—which happens to my students more often than they think it will—then you learn through direct experience that people indeed say “yes” much more often than you might otherwise have thought. Either way, you benefit.

The Story of Cialdini and the Boy Scout

Exercises and simulations are good, but they can’t replace the real thing, which is making important and meaningful requests in real life. There are many strategies for how to make requests effectively; too many to do justice to in one post, but one of my favorite and most effective methods comes once again from the work of the renowned influence guru, Robert Cialdini.

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini tells the story of a time he was approached by a Boy Scout doing a fundraiser who asked him if he’d like to buy any tickets for the circus at $5 each. Cialdini said, "No thanks," to which the boy responded, “Well if you don’t want to buy any tickets, how about buying some of our chocolate bars? They’re only $1 each.” Cialdini ended up buying a couple and, almost immediately, realized that something important had happened because (a) he doesn’t like chocolate, (b) he likes dollars, and (c) he exchanged something he liked for something he didn’t like. After much reflection, during which he formulated a hypothesis to explain what had psychologically occurred, he and a research team went into the field to test it out.

The team went to a college campus and posed as representatives from a youth mentoring program. During the first round, they approached students hanging out between or after classes and asked if they would be willing to take an at-risk youth on a day trip to the zoo. It’s not a small ask and most people (83 percent) said no. Next, during the second round, Cialdini’s team tried something different. They approached other students and asked if they would spend two hours every week for two years as a big brother/sister mentor for at-risk youth. It was quite an extreme request, which is probably why everyone said no. But then Cialdini’s team immediately followed up with the same request as before: Okay, if you won’t do that, will you take an at-risk youth on a day trip to the zoo? It was the same request as from the first round, but this time three times as many students said yes compared to before. So, what happened?

According to Cialdini, when someone makes a concession to you, they are giving you a “gift.” When students declined to be Big Brothers or Sisters to at-risk youth for two years, and the researchers immediately followed up by asking them to take an at-risk youth to the zoo instead, they were making a concession. Cialdini’s principle of reciprocity states that the natural tendency when someone gives or offers you something is to want to offer them something back. Hence, when the research team started out by asking for a two-year commitment but then offered the concession of a day trip to the zoo—and when the Boy Scout started out asking Cialdini to buy a $5 circus ticket but then offered the concession of a $1 chocolate bar—the reciprocal thing to do is to say yes. It doesn’t always work for everyone, and some people will still say no, but a much higher percentage will say yes if you start with the bigger request than if you start with the smaller request.

Always Start With the Big Ask

There are two takeaways from the Cialdini story. First, start with the bigger request. Many people are generally reluctant to make requests, but they are even more reluctant to make big requests. But be bold and make the bigger request because only two of possible things can happen and both are good outcomes. The first possibility is that the other side will say yes because, as I have repeatedly insisted, people say yes more often than you think. The second possibility is that they say no, which is still okay because then you can make a concession, and there’s a good chance the other side will say yes. So if you ask to borrow a friend’s car for a week but she says no, you could ask to borrow it for a day. Or if you ask your brother to help you move for an entire day but he says no, ask him to pitch in for just a couple of hours. You get the idea.

I know from experience this strategy works because I have personally used it time and again, and if I had more space, I could tell you some good stories. Instead, I’d like to make a request of you. I’d like you to go up to someone today and make a really big and bold request. Can you do that for me?

No? Well, if you won’t do that, how about just approaching someone to make a very small request?

Now that you’ve got the idea, you can move past the fear of rejection and move on to the power of asking.

More from Craig B. Barkacs MBA, JD
More from Psychology Today