Why It's So Essential to Be Able to Say 'No' (and Mean It)

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Salary Negotiations: Insider Secrets

Recruiter reveals insider's secrets to getting paid what you want.

Suppose I were to say to you that "no" is the most important word in any negotiation, and that for a negotiation to be successful, compromise is a non-starter. Would you buy it?


If you see that as a contrarian viewpoint, there are an awful lot of contrarians out there. They've taken up the message of Jim Camp, a negotiating coach and author of the book, "NO: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home." Camp, founder and president of The Camp Negotiation Institute, has trained individuals, corporations and governments in the art of successful negotiation, and he says the secret to it all lies in one word: "No."


I spoke with Camp last week about all of this, and I asked him why he says "no" is the single most effective way to get people to listen to you. His explanation:

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of "negotiation" is, "The human effort to bring about agreements between two or more parties, with all parties having the right to veto." When you look at the word, "right," when someone's right to veto is taken away let's take an extreme case -- murder, or rape, or a Jerry Sandusky child molestation case -- what happens to society? So, at any time in a negotiation, if we appear to position ourselves to try to use power and leverage over someone, and take away their right to veto, we create such a terrible environment of conflict that we end up in court, or we end up at war. So the whole psychology around decision-making is that "no" is the most important decision we can make, and that people can be allowed to make. When someone has been given the right to say "no," he doesn't say it negatively. He says something like, "No, I'm not seeing it, I'm not getting it," and the conversation continues. So really great negotiations actually begin with "no," they don't end with "no." It's not a strategy or a tactic. It's just, "I don't see what you're proposing. Help me see where it fits me."


Before I propose anything to you, I'm going to say, "Look, this is really important. I don't want you to ever feel like you can't say no' to me. So I want you to feel very comfortable saying no' to what I'm going to propose. Is that fair? So here's where I think we ought to go." Then I lay out my proposal, and I ask you to say "no" to it. Where am I falling short? If I am falling short, maybe I can fix it, maybe I can't. On the other hand, you don't have all the pressure on you to say "yes," which frees up your decision-making ability.

I also asked Camp to elaborate on his contention that compromise is a "non-starter." The example he used to make the point happened to be a technology company:

I went to a very large technology company, and when I first went in there, a senior vice president has a $40 million contract he was getting ready to negotiate. He explained that he was prepared to reduce the value of the contract by $2 million every week for 12 weeks. So he was willing to compromise $24 million of the $40 million to get the deal. They broke even if they sold the project for $16 million. So each week, he had his compromises laid out for the next 12 weeks. Every time he got a push-back, the next week he would come back with a lower offer, and when they quit pushing back, that's where the deal closed. How sad is that? That's what goes on in American industry, every day. And if you asked him what he's delivering to that client, he really can't tell you-he can't create vision around what's being delivered. So the vision that drives the decision, which is emotional, he's not even in the game. He's trying to drive results with compromise and intellectual information, which is a sad state of affairs. That's why all of our intellectual property is flowing overseas for nothing, because we don't know how to negotiate. We bargain. And then you'll hear people say things like, "We have to keep them happy-we don't want the Chinese mad at us," or the Japanese or Koreans or whoever. Now, don't misunderstand me-I'm not saying that with my clients, somewhere down the road we won't compromise. But we're not going to compromise down to $16 million. They may get $500,000 out of that deal, down to $39.5 million at the end of 12 weeks. But that's all they're getting.


Just to be clear, compromise is not required in negotiation, ever. But you can choose to use it if a vision is created for you where it has some value. It's not a fundamental.

Personally, when I think of an unwillingness to compromise, the first thing I think of is gridlock in Washington. But according to Camp, that gridlock has nothing to do with an unwillingness to compromise:

Gridlock happens because politicians are working with an invalid mission and purpose. Their job is to do a balancing act to get re-elected and to raise money from lobbyists. Their job is not to make our lives happy. I've been told this by senators, governors. Gridlock happens when they try to please their constituents so they can raise more money and buy more television ads and manipulate the message. So the gridlock in Washington has nothing to do with compromise. It has everything to do with an invalid mission and purpose. We American citizens think they're working for us, but they're working for their own interests.

Finally, I asked Camp to what extent "no" is a bluff, and to what extent you really need to mean it when you say it. His response:

Never bluff-it's a waste of time. It's a ridiculous human tactic that's entertaining. I coach real negotiations-we don't bluff. There's no such thing as tactics in negotiation-there are only principles, rules and laws of human behavior. We don't bluff-we don't set false deadlines, we don't try to strong-arm anybody. There's no such thing as power and leverage in negotiation. That will just get you conflict.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 23, 2011 4:18 PM Elizabeth Browne Elizabeth Browne  says:

What I find missing from this discussion is the fact that cultures differ with regard to the use of "No". The word "no" or attitude "no" can end up breaking a relationship between two parties, if the other party places value on building a personal relationship as part of a negotiation process. 


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