Did You “No”?

Negotiation skills are essential in the workplace. But most people aren’t very good at applying them. People generally shy from taking a stance on the issues that concern them. Perhaps it is the fear of confrontation, or of making a critical mistake. For most, it’s just too much pressure.

When I think of successful negotiators, I am reminded of my late uncle Louis. Jovial and gregarious, he was a stocky little man with too much hair and too many teeth. He had a perpetual smile and he almost always had a cigar smoldering in his left hand. He kept his right hand free for shaking hands, signing deals, and pinching babies.

Each year, he and my aunt Alice would roll into town for the family reunion. They never left town in the same car in which they came. Somewhere along the way, Uncle Louis would sell his vehicle and buy another — doubling his money in each transaction. With him, everything was up for negotiation. It was in his blood.

Uncle Louis grew up making deals. Although he was born August 23, 1920, my grandmother always said that he should have been born the day before. He just refused to come out.

Growing up on the family farm, he was famous for buying dessert from one or more of his siblings at dinner. Bidding always started at a nickel for a slice of pie, but could go as high as a quarter depending on the variety of offerings and availability. He made his money for these deals by subcontracting his brothers and sisters’ services to neighboring farms. The siblings would do the work for what he promoted as an honest day’s wage and he would keep a standard negotiating fee in exchange for promoting their services.

In WWII, Louis signed up with the Navy, but he didn’t see much time on the seas. He couldn’t shoot a gun and he got sea sick easily. So he talked his way into running PX operations in Japan. He quickly became the man to know if you wanted to buy or sell anything in the Pacific Theater.

Later in life, Uncle Louis made his money by developing many of the cities and towns in what is now the Greater Houston Area. He lived a good life and he had fun living it.

When Mom and I visited him for the last time in the hospital, he sat up on the side of his bed, removed the respirator tube from his throat, and took a deep breathe. He placed his index finger over the hole in this larynx and said, “I’m done. I’ve reached no.”

He always said that it’s only a good deal if the other guy says “no”. Once you get to “no,” back off bit-by-bit until he says “yes” again, and you’ve got a deal.

The next time I saw my uncle was at his funeral. Held in a church of his choosing and officiated by one of his closest friends, the service was just as he had planned. He had made all arrangements in advance. He won again—the man always got what he wanted by passing “yes” and going directly to “no”.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management & Development. Article originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on July 16, 2007.

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