Book review: Yes can be the worst word in negotiations

No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home

By Jim Camp

Crown Business, $29.95

Don’t let your kids read Mo Willems.

I did. But then I was desperate. For months on end, my son had insisted on an exclusive bedtime engagement with Thomas the Tank Engine and his really useful friends. Every night, the same two Thomas books.

Not that either of us paid much attention during our nightly ritual. I’d read and dream of carpet bombing the Island of Sodor while my Boy Wonder would sing a never-ending version of Five Little Ducks and worry the tail off his well-loved toy giraffe, like a set of rosary beads.

To stay sane, I’d make up dialogue, introduce new train friends and add plot twists. With every deviation, the Boy Wonder would stop singing, quit twirling giraffe’s tail and say, "Start over and read it right." And so it went.

Until one night when Mo came into our lives. Instead of Thomas, we reluctantly agreed to test-drive Mo’s book Pigeon Finds a Hotdog. Which led to Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and the follow-up Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late. The books star a pigeon with attitude. The pigeon begs, pleads and bargains to get his way. Throws tantrums. Makes rational arguments and emotional appeals. To which we empathically shout back no way, fat chance, don’t hold your breath, not going to happen and go to sleep pigeon.

While grateful to be Thomas-free, I’m now worried. These aren’t mere children’s books. Mo’s written a negotiation manifesto for the toddler set. The Boy Wonder and his big sister are mastering the art of saying no. What starts with turning down a talking pigeon will inevitably spill over into what passes for reality in our home. Time to brush your teeth. No. Time for bed. No. Time to eat something other than fish sticks and Popsicles. No.

At the same time, our dynamic duo is learning new high-pressure negotiating techniques that can turn an emphatic no into an exhausted yes. Not that they need more weapons of mass persuasion. Our kids already have an arsenal of techniques that would impress hostage negotiators and hardball union bosses.

All of which bodes poorly for me and my wife and well for the Boy Wonder and his big sister once they leave the nest and make their way in the world.

According to author Jim Camp, most of us are terrible negotiators at work and play. We rush to yes and stall with maybe. We give in and compromise for quick win-win solutions where no one’s feelings get hurt.

"In negotiation, ‘yes’ is the worst word," warns Camp. "It just betrays a fear of failure and a fear of losing this deal, and it primes you to please the other side, to rush ahead, to compromise early and often, to come to a deal, any deal."

Neediness is the big reason why. We want to be liked and loved. We want to impress the boss and show up our co-workers. We need to feel important and irreplaceable.

And then there’s desperation. With our overextended lines of credit and maxed out MasterCards, we need that job, contract or promotion. Yet our desperation tends to spook the folks who could hire us, promote us and put money in our pockets.

Card says the best negotiators aren’t desperate, needy or afraid to say no. "The invitation to ‘no’ tells everyone at the table that we’re all adults here, so let’s talk rationally. No allows everyone involved to put away the need to be right, to be the strongest, to be the smartest, to be the toughest. No gets you past emotional issues and trivial issues to decisions on essential issues. We want decision-based negotiation, not an emotion-based waste of time."

Along with an ability to say no and accept no for an answer, Camp says expert negotiators listen far more than they talk. They ask smart questions. Start with a blank slate in terms of expectations and assumptions. Choose only to negotiate with the real decider. Skip chasing performance goals, quotas and targets over which they have no control and instead focus on their own behavioural goals. Anchor their mission and purpose in the world of the folks they’re negotiating with. And they have a clear vision of the current or future problem that’s in need of a solution.

Successful negotiators also behave like nice people who know how to nurture and put others at ease. A little self-deprecating humour, humility and honesty goes a long way too.

"The tougher the negotiation, the more critical it is to understand that if someone in the room has to feel OK, it is not you. If someone has to feel not-OK, it is you. When other people don’t feel OK, they set up barriers much faster than you can break them done. But ‘not-OKness’ on your part breaks down their barriers – like magic often."

My daughter gets it. You’re the best dad I’ve ever had, she’ll say out-of-the-blue. True, I’m the one and only dad she’s had so far. But she makes me feel more than OK. And much more likely to say yes during the next round of negotiations.

Jay Robb, a Hamilton freelance writer, blogs at

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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