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When You Say “No”, What Do You Mean?

So many potentially great negotiations end in fiascos due to miscommunications. One of the greatest obstacles to human negotiations is just that- the human factor. The fact that each of us approaches the negotiation table with a built-in set of basic assumptions and very different interpretations to the same situation or even written text! Amazingly this is true for even a single word- “No”.

Uncovering the Meaning Behind the Words

Being a good negotiator means navigating yourself through this reality- figuring out what your counterpart means when they say something, and no less important, what they hear and understand when you say something.

How does this connect to the topic of gender?

Two Models of Negotiation:

Consider these two models:

Model 1

Model 2

The Male Model of Negotiation

What I consider the stereotypically “masculine” model (model 1) is quite often discussed, almost taken for granted, in today’s popular literature on negotiation. It sees “No” as the starting point, an obstacle to get past- as indicated by book titles like “Getting Past No”, phrases like “don’t take no for an answer”, or “expert negotiator” tips of seeing “no as a gateway to yes”, as former FBI negotiator Chris Voss outlines in his book “Never Split the Difference”.

Its origins are clear: in the male-dominated world of negotiation, men write about what men know. If negotiation is like war or sports- then your goal is to keep your adversary as far away from your touchdown line and get as close as possible to theirs. No is the obstacle you use to prevent them from getting the maximum you’re willing to give.

According to this model, If I am negotiating salaries with a potential employee, and I say “here’s the salary I’m offering”, implying that there’s not much wriggle room around it, at best the interviewee will take my offer at face value, at worst they will get slightly more than I initially offered by bargaining, but not the maximum salary I can afford to pay.

The Feminine Model of Negotiation:

But there is a second possible model of meaning to “no” (model 2), one which is more similar to the experiences I often hear from women. It starts with a field of “yes” they feel comfortable with, like “sure I don’t mind doing overtime to get this task done”, followed by a less comfortable field of “yes”- “I’m not so happy to stay longer because I have a kid at home or a private life, but I’d hate to be considered a bad worker, so I’ll stay”. Right at the end of this, is the bottom-line “no”, which might be the first “no” their counterpart encounters.

In both cases, the bottom-line no is truly the final frontier, after which the relevant side incurs damages or reaches a situation where negotiation is not beneficial for them.

Recognising this difference in our counterpart is so important! At the most basic level, because regardless of gender, knowing to identify if “no” is the end of the line before an explosion or the starting point of a negotiation is crucial.

In the social context, this might also bring clarity as to why men perceive women’s “no”s as playing hard to get, or why they feel more comfortable seeing “no” as a cue to up their persuasion attempts, whereas women seem more prone to stop at “no” much quicker.

What Does “No” Mean to You?

The point of this post is absolutely not to say that all women or all men negotiate in one way only. It is to get you thinking! How do I negotiate? How do I perceive no? And just as importantly- how is the person in front of me negotiating? Half the work in good negotiation is in figuring out what stands behind what you see at face value, and understanding that the basic assumptions of your counterpart may be entirely different to yours.

If I get at least one woman to question the finality of the “no”s she faces, and press harder for what she wants or believes she deserves (or if I’ve managed to prevent even a single sexual harassment) with this post I’ve achieved my goal!

I’ll be seeing some of you later today at Negotiatress Easter Webinar on Women as Negotiators! Those of you who would still like to join, look out for the details on the FB event or contact me at

Happy Holidays!

Yasmine Guerin

Founder of Negotiatress

Originally posted on April 12, 2020 by Negotiatress



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