Overcoming the fear of No
I had my first crush on a boy when I was nine years old. At school, Cameron was one year older than I was. He had stick-out ears, two shortened fingers from an accident in woodwork, and a huge gap in his front teeth, but I didn’t care. He was charismatic, popular, and made us all laugh. I was in love.
I didn’t know how best to express my feelings at this tender age, so I wrote a letter. “Dear Cameron, I think you’re cute. Will you go around with me? Love Becky” (as I was then called). That afternoon I skipped up to Cameron after school and handed him the note.
I remember the next morning as if it were yesterday. As I walked into class everyone stood, lines of nine-year-old faces behind little wooden desks pointing and laughing. Cameron stood at the noticeboard grinning widely: he had pinned up my note for all to see.
My heart collapsed through my feet. I was humiliated. For the rest of the day, I sat on the concrete floor of a cubicle in the girls’ toilet and cried. My teacher made Cameron apologize through the wall, but it was no use. I wanted to stay there forever.
This is the first time I remember making a social request and getting No in response. I wanted Cameron to be my boyfriend. He had said No in a particularly painful fashion.
Only recently have I realized how much this and other early experiences of No continue to influence aspects of my life, including business. The thought of No still strikes fear into my heart; the power of No has prevented me from achieving things.
In the middle of last year, at least twenty major opportunities were at various stages of negotiation. I noticed that I was very good at opening doors and establishing relationships, but I was not so good at closing.
I thought I was missing a set of techniques, so I asked my mentor for advice. What strategies should I use to close these deals? We worked on a script and a process, and I practiced in front of the mirror.
But when it came to the real deal, I froze. I couldn’t push the conversation to a point where a decision would have to be made. I physically felt sick at the possibility of hearing No and so I procrastinated. I suggested next steps and more meetings. I would rather drag out a Maybe than risk a No.
As a result, nothing happened. I rarely heard Yes, for I always left prospective partners with Maybe as an option. My mentor wisely observed, “No one will say ‘Yes’ today when they think they can say ‘Yes’ next week.”
I had to overcome my fear of No, which was not easy. I had a deep trauma associated with that word. Here are some of my strategies.
1. Become excited about eliminating time-wasters
I had a huge number of deals on the go and added more each week as I travelled and obtained more introductions. I liked my list of prospective partners and didn’t want to lose any of them. I realized that for every deal I lost, I would have more time to focus on the few that signed up. One or two significant partners mean so much more than a list of prospects.
2. Practice closing
I read an excellent book, Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury, and spoke to several friends, all expert closers, for advice. I learnt all the techniques, such as what questions to ask when. I used the scarcity principle and set deadlines for a response.
Next, I poured concrete down my nerves and held the hard conversations. At first it was terrifying. Every No stabbed me in the heart like Cameron’s. I hated those emails. But each rejection was easier than the last, and eventually I toughened up.
3. No doesn’t always mean No
If there is something I really want then I’ll go after it, regardless. In these cases, No is but a step towards a Yes.
I’d wanted someone to join our board for years. I had never pressured him for a decision although we’d discussed it several times. But as we completed our merger with Beat the Q, I needed an answer. He called me into his office and said, “Sorry but I’m a No.” For a couple of days I was disappointed.
On the following Monday I had new information: we’d achieved something that I knew he would like. I invited him out to coffee and, again, asked him to join the board. At first, he appeared perplexed – had we not held this conversation last week? I ignored his puzzlement and continued. At the end of our meeting, we were back to Maybe and weeks later achieved a Yes. A Yes is so much more satisfying when it follows a No.
As children, we are open about what we want. We’re happy to reject other people’s requests, and we accept that we may not always have our own way. I didn’t think twice about giving Cameron a note outlining what I wanted. But when he said No so publicly, I was hurt. Next time, I thought, I will be more circumspect.
I expect that many of us bear similar No traumas from our youth. We learn to avoid putting ourselves in the position where we could hear No and think that we’ll hurt others by saying it to them.
As a result, we don’t make direct requests or give direct responses. We leave things hanging in the world of Maybe, which wastes time. I have learnt that No is a powerful word that should be pursued, not feared.