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Why ‘Yes’ can be worse than ‘No’ in commercial conflict

There are times when saying 'Yes' or 'No' can be problematic – we’ve seen the dilemma this week in the political arena:

Yes” (we are going to make an embarrassing U-turn and ditch a load of political policies), or “No” (I don’t want to be seen as a leader who makes naive or elementary mistakes).

Perhaps you can’t win either way? There’s a school of thought that says even a poor decision can be better than no decision at all. Maybe that’s something the economic movers and shakers have in mind during these turbulent times. Markets like predictability. One of the most fundamental skills tips I can offer to resolve conflict (commercial or otherwise) is to be proactive – make more proposals.

However, time and time again, whether we’re in the training room, consulting, or coaching, we often see that people just don’t want to do it.


Well, possibly they’re just not in possession of all the facts, OK I buy that. There are specific questions you can ask in the ‘explore’ phase that should fill in the gaps and enable you to feel confident enough to put a proposal down (we can help with that). But there’s another reason why people are reticent.

There are times when people are just plain scared; scared of the other side saying “No”, and equally they may also be afraid of the other side saying “Yes”. If you don’t want to do either, it can create a paralysis that affects progress. Discussions drag on for longer than they need to and/or the other side goes first and you’re then playing catch up.

The fear of ‘No’ is understandable – it normally stems from the fact that people haven’t been trained to ask effective questions when they experience ‘pushback’ – therefore not getting to the root cause of the real problem (we can help with this too). It’s of vital importance though, as the ‘reveal’ might enable you to successfully persuade or problem solve the conflict without the need to trade any additional value.

‘Yes’ is slightly less obvious, but I can relate to it. When upsizing our house a few years ago, my partner set her sights on one particular property. We viewed it and she decided that was the one she wanted. By the time we had a buyer in place after a long and protracted twelve months, the perfect (for us) property was off the market. Disappointed, we looked round for something else, finding an alternative a short time later. We were about to press the button to proceed when I got the vibe that my other half wasn’t completely happy. I asked what the issue was, she told me she still liked the first property!

With a trace of frustrated sarcasm, I suggested that she might like to put a note through the door of the first house to see if they were still interested in selling and that’s what she duly did. The seller came back to us and said they were still up for selling. The complication was that without an estate agent, it was now us and them, with no piggy in the middle. I did my extensive planning and hit them with what I considered a low but defendable priced proposal. The other side simply turned round and said “Yes, OK”. Somewhat surprised, I go to my preprepared ‘gives and gets’ – securing extra fixtures and fittings, the dates we wanted etc. (trying to avoid putting the deal at risk).

For a time afterwards though, this deal gave me a concern, as I was left thinking, “This just came a bit too easy, how much better could I have achieved?” After a period of reflection, I reconciled myself to the fact that on this occasion, it would have been difficult to do anything else, without putting the purchase at risk for what we both thought was a good price. Three things to note:

  1. Perception is important – people often feel better with a slightly worse deal that they had to work harder for than a better deal that just came too easily.

  2. Don’t accept a negotiator’s ‘first offer’ as that signal implicitly suggests that there may be a better ‘second’ or ‘third’ offer behind it.

  3. Plan additional trading collateral in advance – for when people say ‘Yes’ or ‘No”

Oh, and learn to, not fear ‘No’ - at least it means you’ve not underpitched!

Sam Macbeth 17th October 2022

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