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When “No” is Preferable to “Maybe”

Sometimes, instead of pushing for a yes, it’s better to get the message that there’s no way, no how, no hope, no need, no budget, no possibility, not now, probably not ever, we just don’t want it.

Of course, you have to be skilled at handling objections, to recognize which are merely tactics and which are real, to be prepared enough and courageous enough to take them on whether you’re selling a product, a service, or an idea.

But often what you really need to know is where you stand — particularly when not knowing means a waste of your time and resources, both monetary and emotional, that could be better spent on something else.

Four examples:

  1. The idea for this piece came from Andrew Benbasset Miller, a sales exec at Bloomberg. We were chatting about prospects who aren’t planning to say yes, but who are so culturally committed to not offending anyone that they’ll keep taking your calls over and over, and never move any further in the decision process. (Send me an email if you want to know what I suggested he say to these folks.) In numerous countries and cultures, the idea of giving offense is abhorrent, complicating the sales process significantly. That’s certainly not as big a problem here in the Northeast!
  2. Years ago, when faxes were still important, I would occasionally send an impromptu check-off form to someone who hadn’t responded to numerous voicemails for one reason or another, asking them to put me out of my misery by giving me instructions as follows:
    [ ] Please try me at this date and time: ___________________
    [ ] I’m not the one you want! Please call this name and number instead: ________
    [ ] Sorry, I can’t help you with this at all.

    It never failed. No one ever faxed back, but they always called or left a voice message. Now it could be an email or text.

  3. Daughter is trying to convince Husband that we should get a dog. They’ve discussed who will have which responsibilities, possible allergies, types of breeds, sizes, and temperaments. Husband keeps asking new questions because he really doesn’t want a dog himself, and it’s virtually impossible for Daughter to explain “exactly how it will be” no matter how much research she does. The back-and-forth now feels like a delaying tactic, a fight, and a bottomless pit as much as it is a legitimate request for actionable information.
  4. While I was drafting this piece I heard a bit of a segment from Ira Glass’s This American Life on NPR about the horrors of Middle School. The interviewer was clearly surprised by one young lady who told at least five boys who had asked her to a dance that she “didn’t know” if she’d go with them. The interviewer followed up by asking the girl if some of the boys might think that “I don’t know” really meant “yes.” “Then they got the wrong answer!” she said. “Did you say ‘I don’t know’ because you thought it was too mean to say ‘no’?” pressed the interviewer. “Yeah,” the middle-schooler replied, laughing in an embarrassed sort of way.

We don’t like to say no if we think the other person will be upset or hurt or angry — even if our hearts are screaming, “No, no, a thousand times, no.” We’re afraid we’ll be “a bad person,” that we’ll be behaving in a way we wouldn’t want others to treat us, and that it’s kinder to leave a little hope.

But that approach doesn’t make sense. It always ends up like a jilting in the end. Think of it as a financial transaction that never clears, messing up the books for both sides. Sometimes it’s more practical and better behavior to draw a line through it, adjust, and move on. In fact, I just interrupted my work on this blog to write a couple of closure emails to people I’ve left hanging for one “good” reason or another. Perhaps you’d like to do the same?

Onward and upward,


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