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How Saying “No” Can Become Your Superpower in Every Negotiation

Author Anastasia SikorskayaAnastasia Sikorskaya

10 min read
Better Business

Compromise ruins negotiations. The win-win approach ruins negotiations. What doesn’t? Saying “no” whenever it needs to be said. This is the essence of Jim Camp’s theory. The 4 rules he put forward will help you feel confident and seize opportunities inside and outside the conference room

How Saying “No” Can Become Your Superpower in Every Negotiation

Compromise ruins negotiations. The win-win approach ruins negotiations. What doesn’t? Saying “no” whenever it needs to be said.

This is the essence of Jim Camp’s theory. In his book “Start with No”, he explains how to make any negotiation work, and below we list the most useful principles he put forward. These four rules will help you feel confident and seize opportunities inside and outside the conference room.

Just saying

You could say "no" to our accounting services but why would you?

Don’t be in need

When people engage in negotiations, they are usually driven by the need for something: to land a big client, to get a job, or to buy a new car. It seems to be natural, but Jim Camp states that being in need is not the right state of mind for negotiations. In fact, it is the most vulnerable position one can find oneself in.

One who desperately needs a deal can not negotiate as an equal. From the start, he is forced to agree to disadvantageous terms and hangs on to the first minimal opportunity. A skilled negotiator can easily take advantage of an opponent in need.

Jeffrey owns a small advertising agency and needs to get the attention of a famous company. This is Jeffrey’s ticket to the big league: if he strikes the deal, he will be able to use the famous contractor’s name to attract more lucrative clients. The big company knows this and demands a 30% discount. Jeffrey yields, gives the discount and binds himself to a 3-year contract. As a result, he can barely cover his costs and does not make any profit on the contract.

John is an accounting specialist and he is looking for a job. He has been searching the internet for a month and has finally been invited to an interview. He has no backup offers and badly needs to do well on this interview. John does not manage to hide this. The employer takes advantage of it and offers John 50% of the salary which John wanted. John takes the job.

The way to overcome neediness is to replace “need” with “want”. “Need” is when one depends on the outcome of the negotiations and is ready to make sacrifices just to get a “yes”. “Want” is when a deal would be nice to have — but one puts their best interests first and doesn’t accept the deal if it is not good for them.

Once you realise you are free to walk away at any time, you get control over the situation

Here is what a person who wants something keeps in mind: most likely, their life or any other fundamentally important things do not depend on only one negotiation. There will always be another client, another contract, and another interview. Once you realise you are free to walk away at any time, you get control over the situation.

Jeffrey realises that giving a huge discount to the big company may badly hurt his financial situation. It would be nice to get the company as a client, but it is not worth putting his agency at stake. Instead of accepting the disadvantageous terms, Jeffrey asks the company’s management why they want a discount. He learns that a competitor has offered them a lower price. But the competitor has suggested using commercials on the radio and TV. Jeffrey believes that it won’t work for the company’s teenager-oriented product and voices his opinion. Jeffrey offers to use advertisements on social media and promotion by celebrity bloggers. The company sees that Jeffrey is the right person for the job and he gets the price he wanted.

John read Jim Camp’s book and knows that even if he is not getting many job offers, it doesn’t mean that he never will. He wants to start working soon, but he does not want just any work, and he is not desperate enough to accept any terms. The upcoming interview is not his last chance. As a consequence, John does not beg and does not reveal that he has no backup offers at the meeting. Instead, he radiates confidence and asks a lot of questions. This is how John learns that the shareholders of the company want to implement a new financial reporting system, and he has the right experience for it. John gets the job offer with the desired salary.

Without fear of rejection, one can clearly see the real problem of the counterparty. Instead of trying to close the deal by any means because you’re afraid of losing money, try to focus on the best solution to the other negotiator’s problem. After all, taking care of the client is the real purpose of every negotiation.

Being in need

Michael comes to the shopping mall to buy a simple white shirt. The consultant Mary wants her commission, so she offers him the most expensive shirt to try on. The shirt doesn’t fit, but Mary convinces Michael that it brings out his eyes.

Michael buys the shirt but is disappointed later: he was tricked into spending money and didn’t get what he needed. Michael never returns to this shop.

Not being in need

Mary realises that taking good care of a client is the best way to make a profit. She brings Michael three white shirts with different prices and looks. Mary helps Michael to choose the most suitable shirt. Michael also buys a tie and cufflinks. He is grateful to Mary and will definitely come back next time.

Use the  “no talking”

Everyone has the right to say “no” at any moment of negotiations. A client may not sign the contract, reject the original terms, or break the deal after several years of cooperation. And you know what? It’s all right.

If a potential partner has all the facts and goes for “no”, it is for the best. If they say “yes” to something that does not fully suit them, you will both regret it later. Their underlying discontent will make them nitpick at your work, delay payments, and cause other kinds of trouble.

You too should say “no” when things go wrong or don’t work for you anymore. When one says “no”, they set boundaries for what they really want and avoid unfavourable agreements.

Avoiding “no”

— Can you give me a discount?
— This is the minimum price, otherwise I will be selling at a loss.
— I can’t afford this device without a discount. Maybe I should go to another store.
— Fine, I will give you a 3% discount on the first purchase.
— 3% is not enough. I need a 5% discount or I won’t buy it.
— Fine, 5% it is. As an exception.

Saying “no”

— Can you give me a discount?
— Unfortunately, no. This is a fair price for this device.
— I can’t afford the device without a discount.
— If it’s too expensive, we can look at the models from last year's collection. They’re also good — but a lot cheaper. If they don’t suit you, it is okay, feel free to tell me straight away.
— Show me the older models then, please.

Decisions are often made emotionally: one rushes to agree to an offer that promises them a lot of money and overlooks important details. A “no” gets you past emotions and engages rational thinking.

Avoiding “no”

— Your offer is perfect. Deal!
— We are pleased to cater your event. I will prepare the papers.

A week later
— Sorry, I have to cancel. We discussed your offer once again and decided that it’s not good for us after all.
— But I’ve already ordered the food for the event, I can’t cancel the delivery.
— Sorry, there is nothing I can do.

Saying “no”

— Your offer is perfect. Deal!
— We would be pleased to cater your event but you don’t have to make the decision now.
— I am ready, please bring the papers.
— We don’t want to disappoint you. Please take your time before the final decision. You might want to consult some other stakeholders and see what they think. Let’s have a meeting in two days. Does this work for you?

Invite the counterparty to say “no”. It will make them feel comfortable during the conversation. You will make sure that their decision is final, and that they aren’t agreeing in a rush or as a favour to you.

Hearing “no” from the counterparty is the best answer one can wish for. You can ask “why not?” straight away and uncover the real problem your counterparty is trying to solve. An effective negotiator uses the connection “no — why” automatically.

Remember that every no-answer is reversible. Treat it is just as a point in negotiations that can take your cooperation to the next level.

Avoiding “no”

— We won’t be able to prolong the contract.
— But we have worked together for five years. You won’t find a better partner. You can’t just leave us behind.
— We don’t need your services anymore.

Saying “no”

— We won’t be able to renew the contract.
— Why not?
— We are moving our business to Russia and are bound by legislation to store all personal data on local servers.
— No problem, we have a subsidiary company there.

There is no reason to take no-answers personally or try to save the relationship by accepting disadvantageous terms. The partners at the meeting table do not seek friendship — they only want respect. The best way to show respect is to give a fair answer and save time and resources for both sides.

Develop a valid mission

The mission is a tactical purpose that you set in relations with the counterparty and that determines the negotiation. It might seem that one already knows the mission for every meeting: to close the deal, get the money and go to the Caribbean. But if one follows this paradigm, they will lose the client.

The client is only interested in you as long as you are useful to them. So, the mission of your gaining money or power is invalid as it is worthless for your counterparty.

This is why you need to set the mission in counterparty’s world. First, you have to find the problem of the counterparty. Why are they having a meeting with you? What is bothering them? Why do they need your products?

Then, write down the mission. Try to start it with the verb “to help”, this lets you set the mission in the counterparty’s world.

Bad mission

To increase sales by the end of the year by 25%.

To be a top-50 company in two years.

To be the CEO.

Good mission

To help investors increase their profits with secure instruments.

To help little children learn Spanish through games.

To help the shareholders see how the new manager can make the company efficient again.

During the first meeting, concentrate on finding the real problem of the client. Even the client himself may not be fully aware of it. Your task is to dig deep.

Nick owns a car service and wants a website. He invites the web-designer, Kate, to a meeting. Kate asks Nick several questions and learns that Nick wants to attract new clients with his website. Kate sets the mission to help Nick to attract new customers.

New clients usually come to Nick on the recommendation of regular clients. Outdoor advertising also works well. Nick wants a website only because everyone has one. Kate explains that a website doesn’t attract clients by itself, Nick must promote the website constantly. Moreover, potential clients rarely search for a car service on the internet. Kate advises Nick to develop booklets for the clients to share with friends and flyers for outdoor promotions. Nick hires Kate to design the booklets and the flyers.

Judi is a product development manager. The CEO asked her to develop a new product. Judi’s mission is to help the company to retain clients. Judi examines the case and learns that customers leave the company because of poor customer service, not because of the lack of products. She advises to improve customer service first and proposes the first steps.

In the pursuit of a big bonus Judi could have taken the project and developed a new product. But she uncovers the real problem of the company instead. The CEO appreciated her insight and gives her a promotion.

When you have the mission ready, you can propose a solution. But if you see that you are not the right person to solve the client’s problem, you should say it straight away. You won’t get the deal now, but the client will see a strong partner in you for the future.

In the long term, it will benefit you more than signing a contract, working hard and then seeing the project put on hold because the client finds this work useless to him. Instead of fighting for the project that is already dead, you can invest your resources in working for another client who actually needs your help — all thanks to the right mission guiding you.

Do not be “okay”

Most businessmen try to present themselves at meetings as pure perfection in brand-new suits and with show-off portfolios. Next to these superstars, it is hardly possible for normal people to talk about their problems. On the contrary, they will try to put the best face on their business and conceal unflattering details.

Such lack of honesty is fatal to negotiations, as the parties won’t be able to see the full picture and will end up making false assumptions. If the parties are not honest with each other, they are unable to help each other.

Gigi, an interior designer, comes to the meeting room in high heels, with a perfect haircut and wearing a gold watch. She presents a great portfolio and recounts how she decorated a big office and a lobby in marble with silver candelabras. On the other side of the table sits a client, Mr Jang, in a casual outfit and with a limited budget. He needs to decorate his small office. He thinks that the designer only works with big budgets and big clients, and is ashamed to explain his situation to her. So instead he acts cold and declines the designer’s offer.

What Mr Jang doesn’t know is that Gigi borrowed the watch and the heels from a friend to “look professional”. He also does not know that the candelabras project left Gigi broke — she did a lot of extra work and spent a lot more time on it than she could afford. What Gigi would love now is a short and sweet gig — just like Mr Jang’s.

The solution is to act natural and to be “not okay”. Jim Camp gives detective Columbo from the old TV series as an example. He always looked a bit sloppy, told heartwarming stories and pretended to forget to ask the most important question. He seduced people into feeling okay. That helped him to get honest answers and to solve crimes.

Of course, we don’t urge you to exaggerate and to wear old sweatpants or a t-shirt to a meeting. A small gesture like forgetting a business card or a pen is enough to release tension. This will give your counterparty a chance to feel slightly superior to you — which is just what you need. Now that they feel safe, they are ready to talk.


  • Get rid of the “need” and adopt the “want” paradigm to realise that your life doesn’t depend on this very negotiation.
  • Say “no” when something does not fully suit you.
  • Hear “no” and ask “why”.
  • Invite “no” to make the counterparty feel comfortable in the negotiation and take a deliberate decision so that they will not back out later.
  • Develop a mission in the counterparty’s world.
  • Forget a business card or a pen to make the counterparty feel slightly superior and open up to you.
Jim Camp Spells
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