What Does Maybe REALLY Mean in Negotiations?

In our previous blogs, we discussed why yes rarely signals agreement and how you can use no to your advantage . The typical strategies for getting to yes rarely lead to a lasting one. And although getting a no is the path to discovery and consequently, successful negotiations, there’s a third alternative at the negotiation table: Maybe.

By Merriam-Webster’s definition, maybe means “possibly but not certainly”. In essence, it says, “I’m not agreeing to something but I’m also not discounting it.”

This ambiguous response is a lie. The person uttering it doesn’t want to make a decision. Perhaps they can’t or don’t want to be decisive. For others, the seller’s tenacity might wear down their resistance. But rather than just say “yes” or “no”, they opt for “maybe”. It seems like a softer, easier response.

However, being polite without ever intending to commit essentially is a lie. A more honest answer would be, “Thanks but I can’t make a decision until I have more information.”

Those who rely heavily on maybe as their fallback response do so for other, more inherent reasons:

  1. Fear of rejection: If I make a decision and it’s not what the seller wants to hear, he/she will be upset with me and not like me. Lately, this sentiment has risen to the forefront with the MeToo movement. Female celebrities have come forth with stories of powerful men in Hollywood forcing them into compromising positions. Many recounted feeling that they had no choice, as these men could ruin their careers and reputations if they said no.

  2. Fear of pain: Will my response hit me where it hurts (i.e.-emotionally, physically, financially)? For those who feel bullied or pressured into making a decision, it’s easier to acquiesce, despite having no intention of abiding by the agreement. If one does keep it, he or she usually is working overtime to find a way out of it.

  3. Fear of loss: Will I lose control, love, security or companionship due to my choice? Many also worry that they’ll lose respect or their personal or professional status.

  4. Fear of the unknown: If I say yes, what will happen? If I say no, will I always wonder what would have happened if I said yes? Such questions lead us to become paralyzed in our decision-making; often because we don’t know what the next steps will be. Doing nothing is safer than delving into the unknown.

Often, maybe is a way to preserve the relationship. For instance, you’ve worked with a client for years, providing parts to them. You’ve got a good relationship. It’s time for them to renew their contract with you. However, before signing on the dotted line, the client tells you that they need to reduce costs and now want the parts you’ve supplied to them over the years at a 5 to 10% price cut.

You really can’t (nor want) to reduce your prices. You hedge a bit. Sensing your hesitancy, your client says, “We’ve worked together for years. I’d hate to have to go to another vendor.” You reply, “I think maybe we can work something out.”

What maybe really means here is, “I don’t want to lose this client but also don’t want to reduce my prices.” In some cases, a maybe can get twisted into a yes if the person wanting it is persistent enough. However, such “yeses” usually result in buyer’s remorse.

Maybe Is an Indecisive Leader’s Response

Leaders aren’t immune to the challenges of a maybe. One who is inherently indecisive or unsure of his or her mission and values will grapple with the decision-making process.

The longer they evade making a decision, the more their opponent will hound them for one. The pressure becomes too much. The process too intimidating. So the leader goes silent and avoids it altogether. It becomes a vicious cycle.

What they fail to realize is that yes and no are responses. Maybe is not. A yes is confirmation that you can move forward. A no is an opportunity for the receiver to reposition their objectives to elicit a yes or for the leader to be resolute in his or her decision-making abilities and for both to explore the discovery process further. A maybe is just limbo and a timewaster for everyone.

Turning a Maybe Yes into a Real Yes

When faced with the maybe, how do you turn it into a yes? Again, encourage the “no” first. The more you play out these steps, the more you’ll solidify the deal in the end.

Good discovery questions for the parts example include: Is there something that prompted the need to reduce costs? Do you foresee an increase in parts volumes in the next year or two? Will you be growing the business/expanding your territories within the next five years?

Such questions can pave the way for discovery on both sides, making allowances for clarifying and verifying the client’s concerns, motives and drivers (i.e.-what’s really driving the request for a discount?) Perhaps, it’s a strategic, short-term move. Maybe there’s an opportunity to assist them in an area that prevent you for having to lower your price or cut into your profit margin.

The more comfortable you can make your counterpart through your line of questioning and discovery, the more effectively you’ll turn that maybe yes into a real yes. Why? It can help you tap into the real yes behind their polite no.

For many, the first yes is a tentative one. As a strong negotiator, your job is to take them through a discovery process that crystallizes for them why they should firmly commit to that yes. Clarifying questions such as the following can facilitate discovery:

  • I’m hearing you say yes but sense some hesitation. Often, they’ll quickly respond with, “Well yeah, I was wondering…”

  • Is there anyone else who needs to be involved in this decision?

  • Where are your other decision-makers (board, team, family, etc) in the buy-in process?

  • How sure are you with this decision? A good way to test the waters is to cite a few objections they may have brought up previously, affording them another chance to say, “Yes, that’s a concern, maybe we should do that.” Doing so, gives you - the negotiator - another opportunity to address that objection and then get a firm and genuine yes.

One word of advice. Avoid leading questions unless you have a valid reason for them. If you proceed, position them in the following manner: What’s driving that? What’s prompting this response/move/etc.? What has changed?

Your Turn…

What do you do to get around the maybe?

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