Communication Skills: 3 Ways To Make “No” Work For You


Is “yes” really always “yes”?

“No” is protection. “Yes” is commitment. “No” instantly makes people feel safe while “yes” makes them worry about what they’ve committed themselves to. Nearly every “yes” at best is a conditional “yes”, and often is a counterfeit “yes”. Here are three simple communication skills that will make "no" work for you. 


On the other hand, “No” is always “no”.

Why not use these three ways to make "no" work for you? 

  • To Break Impasse
  • To Get Someone’s Attention (especially if they have stopped responding to you)
  • To Help Someone Think Clearly

Just change your “yes-oriented” questions – “Is it ok if we sit in the reserved section of the restaurant?” to “no-oriented” questions – “Would it be horrible if we sat there?”

Practice makes perfect and also increases your Black Swan Jedi ability to make things happen.

Most of your “yes-oriented” questions can simply be flipped to get the same result you want by changing the beginning of them to:

  • “Is it ridiculous...?”
  • “Would it be horrible…?”
  • “Is it a bad idea...?”
  • “Have you given up on…?”

“Have you given up on this project?” (or whatever the issue at hand might be) is a particularly powerful tool. It triggers the safety of “no” and then boosts it with Prospect theory – the concept that loss aversion drives action more than the desire for gain. People are 2x more likely to take an action to avoid a loss than they are to accomplish a gain. This is literally a Nobel prize winning concept.

“Have you given up on this project?” is one of the top email lines that all or our clients have reported back to us is solid gold. Make sure you’re ready for a quick answer and you’re prepared to elicit a “That’s right” from them before you move any further.

“Is it ridiculous for you to come speak at the negotiation course I teach at USC?” got Jack Welch to stop dead in his tracks and give me his personal assistant’s contact information so we could try to make the calendars sync up. Though we couldn't make the timing work, how many people get Jack Welch’s personal assistant’s contact information in the initial approach? I approached him cold at a book signing.

“Would it be horrible if we sat in this section?” is the question I asked a waitress when members of our group were trying to get into a roped-off section of a restaurant. We’d just come out of a conference and only wanted a happy hour drink and all the seating was gone.

She said: “Not as long as you’re out of here by 6.” We were. And I gave her a great tip.

“Is it a ridiculous idea…? was used by a client in a recent training to cut a deal back home. She left the room at the break and used it to suggest an alternative the colleague had been resisting. “No it wouldn’t be” – and the deal was made.

I actually ask everyone that works with me to only use “no-oriented” questions with me late in the day when my brain is starting to get worn out. Science has recently shown us we are only capable of making so many decisions in any given day. We wear out as the day goes on.

It’s one of the reason a few famous people (Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, etc.) wear the same thing every day. They’re not interested in burning up mental decision power on what shirt to wear. Their daily decisions are literally worth millions.

If someone asks me “What?” or “How?” when I’m fatigued I will likely not answer until the next day. If they give me “Is this a bad idea…?” I actually find myself quickly focusing (even getting a little bit of energy) and being able to answer. 

Practice makes perfect. Use this communication skill with the check-out clerk, the waitress, the gas station attendant, anyone who can help you gain a feel for this in your frequent, daily, small stakes interactions.

Is it a bad idea, to leverage the natural human inclination to say “no”, to get things done? No.

never split the difference study guide

About The Author

Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a firm that solves business negotiation problems with hostage negotiation strategies. Chris founded the Black Swan Group, in 2008 upon his retirement from the FBI where he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Chris is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches business negotiation in both M.B.A. programs.