A few weeks ago I attended the Rich Litvin Intensive in London. Put together by Rich and his wonderful team, it was one part training (in the principles of The Prosperous Coach, the fantastic book he wrote with Steve Chandler), one part conference (but in the awesome ‘160 incredibly inspiring people in the room’ way, not the dull way). I left with a bunch of notes, a bunch of thoughts and insights, and a bunch of fantastic new people in my network, but this story in particular was something I wanted to share.
On the Friday evening, at a drinks reception, I was speaking with Rich and two other coaches. We were talking about the challenges of raising prices, and the fear of rejection, and Rich gave a challenge to Nancy, one of the coaches in the conversation. “Get someone to say 'No' to you between now and the start of the day tomorrow. Even if you have to go into Starbucks and ask for a free coffee, collect a No.” Out of solidarity, I and the other coach in the conversation also accepted the challenge.
Nancy succeeded in collecting a No, and shared that story at the intensive; this is my story of that challenge, which I didn’t share at the time but which felt packed with lessons about business and coaching.
First, although I said I was going to take part in the challenge…....... well… it wasn’t my challenge… and it was someone else’s idea that I should do it as well… and Rich didn’t suggest that I should... So my first instinct was that I wasn’t really going to do it. [Those of you who know my writing should be shouting "RESISTANCE!" at me about now.]
And yet, as I walked past a coffee shop the next morning on the way to the venue and looked in, and there was almost no queue, I stopped walking. It was almost without thought at that stage, but as I did think, I realised I had a decision. Do I engage with this challenge and see what happens, or do I remain a passive participant in this intensive? I don’t have to do it, but would it be interesting to do it? My Resistance was there, too – I’ll get a free coffee at the venue; I don’t need a coffee; it’s not my challenge; I don’t have to do it.
But throughout the first day-and-a-bit of our work at the intensive, and in the lead up to the event, we had been asked about our intentions. Why were we there? What did we want to take away? Who would we need to BE to really take away what we wanted? And for me, I knew that part of what was important was not just sitting at the back watching. It was about taking part. And so as I paused, I realised I had a choice: do I engage or not? I was primed by Rich and the team to get the most I could out of the intensive. And so I walked in.
“Can I have a black Americano please?” This is the easy part.
“Sure. That will be £2.15 please.” Brief pause. Am I really going to say this?
“Could I have it for free?” This was less easy. Although it was made easier because although I find rejection difficult, it isn’t as deep-seated a fear of mine as it used to be.
Pause, blank look, then... “What?”
“Could I have the coffee for free?”
“Why?” At this stage I’m a little surprised the conversation is even still going on. Why hasn’t she just said ‘No’?
“Someone challenged me to ask for a free coffee.”
Then the very friendly woman sort of shrugged. And closed the till. And smiled at me. And I stammered a bit, confusedly... this isn’t what I had expected. I mumbled something like:
“Oh, is it free? Thanks so much.”
Then I waited in line for the coffee to be made, half expecting her to call me back. I started blushing, feeling hot – I don’t need this free coffee. Should I pay? Should I say I don't want it? Is the woman who makes the coffees going to ‘catch’ me? I half turned back to the woman who served me to offer to pay, but she was serving someone else by then. I genuinely didn’t know what to do.
So I collected the coffee, and walked of the shop.
I didn’t really know what to do, then, either, but as I walked I realised that as I didn’t need the coffee, I could just pass it on. First, I thought that if I walked past someone who had been sleeping rough, I would offer it to them. Then, I thought, what if I don't walk past any rough sleepers? Well, the aim here was to get someone to say no to me; let’s continue with the challenge. So after I didn't walk past any rough sleepers in the first few minutes after leaving the shop, I decided to try to give my free coffee away. And it turned out it was harder than getting a free coffee. I collected eight Nos trying to give away the coffee before someone took it. Here are what they said:
1) “No thanks, I’ve just had one. But have a nice day.” (Delivered with a massive smile by an incredibly friendly old man with a London accent who had been walking along and talking to himself pretty furiously until I offered him the coffee.)
2) No. (From a confused looking man. At least that’s what I think he said, he mumbled it and walked past me really fast.)
3) “What?” (I explain again.) “No, thank you, I don’t drink coffee.” (Young female tourist.)
4) “No.” (Workman 1.)
5) “No. I don’t drink coffee. *pause* Well, I do, but only when it’s got lots of milk in it.” (Workman 2.)
6) “No, thank you.” (A middle-aged mum with her son (late teens/early 20s), delivered with a slightly nervous smile as she sped up slightly, son in tow.)
7) Silence (Her son, as he is rushed on by.)
8) “No, mate.” (Backpacker type 1.)
9) “I’ll take it.” (Backpacker type 2, an Aussie, before…) “It’s cool, yeah?” God knows what he thought I might have put in it.
Why Chasing “No” Works
The centre of the challenge that Rich said for Nancy is that collecting Nos is an excellent strategy for growing your business. Chasing Nos, and celebrating them, gets you stuff. And it’s the stuff you want. Because let’s not lose sight of what happened here: I got given a free coffee (I love coffee), based on the goodness of someone’s heart (I love seeing the good in the world, and I love it when I have nice interactions with strangers). This is the kind of thing which uplifts me (and it does, even telling the story now). And so if getting someone to say ‘No’ to you is your aim, is what you are counting, chasing, celebrating, then when someone says yes to your slightly outrageous request then you are actually slightly disappointed. There are three reasons, I think, why chasing and celebrating Nos works.
1) It makes it less crushing when people say No to you. That’s the real point here – if I had really needed the coffee, and she had said No, then I would have been gutted. If my life (or mortgage) had depended on giving away the coffee, then each No would have been a knife in the heart. Instead, I was able to enjoy the game: enjoy strangers saying 'No' to me. And when I did get the free coffee, well, great!
2) The lack of attachment. This probably made it more likely for the woman in the coffee shop to give me the coffee. I didn’t need the coffee, I just wanted it. And if I didn’t get it, I was going to be pleased. I was relaxed. I was smiling. I suspect my relaxed nature here made it easier for her to shrug and say 'Yes'. We could both shrug about the whole thing. If I had needed the coffee, because, say, I had lost my wallet and really needed my caffeine hit because I was a serious addict, then I think she would have thought something like, “I can’t just give it to anyone who hasn’t got money with them.” She would have apologised and said 'No'.
3) If your aim is to get a No, then when you get a Yes you don’t stop playing. I didn't get a No and then changed the game I was playing (and a good job – I didn’t have enough hands for more free coffees), but I didn’t have to, I could have kept trying for free coffees. If my challenge was to collect 20 Nos in the week, then who knows how much free coffee I would have drunk or given away? Now I don’t need or want more free coffee, but you may need and want more clients. And continuing to chase the Nos when you have had a Yes is what makes the business sustainable.
I Don’t Want That, From You, Right Now.
Here’s the second, and perhaps more surprising lesson that stands out on reflection from the story. The second workman exposed the silent clarification in most if not all the Nos I received when offering the coffee. First, he said, “I don’t drink coffee.” Then he realised he had lied, and qualified it with “I don’t drink black coffee.” How do we know that wasn’t a lie, too? Just one he was more comfortable with. How many of the other people really didn’t want a free coffee? The truth is, these people weren’t necessarily saying “I don’t want a free coffee”, even if that is what they seemed to be saying. They were saying “I don’t want that coffee, from you, now.” (The exception is the first No I received. He seemed to actually tell the truth: 'I don’t want it now, because I’ve just had one.')
So this is another lesson in detachment; this time from the Nos you receive. There are three things they might be saying 'No' to, here: coffee at all, receiving it from me, and receiving it now. Their Nos didn’t make the coffee a bad coffee, or me a bad person. Not that coaching, from you, right now. You can’t know why someone is saying 'No', even when they tell you. They might just be looking out for your feelings. They might just not be very good at saying 'No', or at having what they think will be an uncomfortable conversation – most of us aren’t very good at either. There are many, many possible reasons.
What I am offering to you is this: it could be how you ask, it could be what you’re offering, but in any case, it is really always just about the Now.
If you’re a coach reading this, you probably recognise the feelings and thoughts I’m about to describe. Many in other professions will, too. You give someone a powerful experience. You change their world. You know there’s a good fit; you know you can change their life even more if they commit to working with you, but they say No. And you question yourself for minutes, hours, days, weeks, months. What did I do wrong? Am I a terrible coach after all? Will I have to quit this work and go get a proper job?
It’s not the ones who you didn’t serve powerfully that are painful. It’s the ones who you have served incredibly but who still say 'No'. That’s where it’s tough.
But what if, instead of you being a terrible coach who should quit and go and hide in a cave somewhere (or is that just me?), they just don’t want coaching? It might be nothing to do with the experience you’ve given them. Or what if they just don’t think you’re the best match for them? They may know someone else who has served them even more powerfully. But even in both these cases, the real, true answer – the only one which you can be sure is true – is the final one: they don’t want coaching from you now. If your instincts are good (and you’re a coach, so they probably are) then something special happened with that client. And it could happen again. They have chosen, for now, to go elsewhere. But you served them. And you served them powerfully. They may be back. It is the timing that is wrong, not you.
Find Your Game
So find your game. Find the way you can make whatever makes you worried or uncomfortable into something you can play with. Perhaps it’s getting a No from an unsuspecting coffee shop. Giovanna Capozza told me a story about asking for a pizza in a hairdressers. A client and I designed a challenge to not say anything to other parents in the school playground for 60 seconds after saying hello… no matter what. The discomfort will go down, the fun will go up, and you will learn more than you expected.
The Rest of the Lessons
One of the reasons I wanted to share this story, and some of my thoughts on it, is because the story feels so rich with lessons. You might be able to tell from the article that I'm still working out the lessons as I write, and I'm still not quite sure I've explored or explained them fully. The story is a powerful analogy in particular for coaching and the sales process. So I'd love it if some of you would help pick out some of the other lessons in there, to help me and others, and let me know what you think.