Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

By: Chris Voss

25-MINUTE AUDIO / 3,600 WORDS (9 PAGES)

SYNOPSIS

Do you dread negotiations for fear of the conflict involved?

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The fact is that every aspect of our lives involves some form of negotiation—from a salary discussion to a child’s bedtime, a business deal to a high-stakes hostage crisis.

In these situations, the only way to get what you think is right is to ask for it. In Never Split the Difference, former expert FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss details that the best way to do this is to use a set of tools that allows you to better connect with others, influence them, and negotiate for what you want.

TOP 20 INSIGHTS

  1. Never split the difference—it leads to dreadful outcomes. If you want to wear your black shoes, but your spouse wants you to wear the brown ones, splitting the difference means you end up wearing one black shoe and one brown. Compromising is a cop-out, a way to feel safe.

  2. Start any negotiation by listening; it’s the only way to create enough trust and safety for a real conversation, to identify what your counterpart actually needs and to get them to feel safe enough to talk about what they really want.

  3. Practice good listening—it will help you develop emotional empathy. Researchers at Princeton University used an fMRI brain-scan to discover that people who paid the most attention, i.e., really good listeners, could actually anticipate what a speaker was about to say.

  4. In her daily TV show, Oprah was a master listener. She was able to get the person she was interviewing to talk about their deepest secrets, using a smile to ease the tension, signaling empathy with subtle verbal and nonverbal signals, and speaking slowly.

  5. Use tactical empathy to encourage your counterpart to expand on their situation. You don’t have to agree with them, just acknowledge their situation. Once the other person realizes that you are listening, they are more likely to tell you something that you can use.

  6. Mirror what your counterpart says. People are drawn to what is similar and fear what is different. Mirroring encourages the other person to keep talking, and ultimately to reveal their strategy.

  7. Label your counterpart’s fears; it disrupts the power of a negative thought or emotion. Labeling essentially short-circuits the amygdala, the part of the brain that reacts to real or imaginary threats.  

  8. Pushing for “yes” makes people defensive; you have to get past the counterfeit and confirmation yesses in order to get to the real commitment.

  9. As Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, remarks: “Every ‘No’ gets me closer to a ‘Yes.’” Often, the word “no” just means “wait” or “I’m not comfortable with that.” Once you hear that first “no,” the real negotiation begins.

  10. If you’re trying to work with someone and they keep ignoring your messages, provoke a “no” response with a simple one-sentence email: “Have you given up on this project?” Odds are, the other person will respond with something like, “No, it’s just that other issues have cropped up and...”

  11. Bend your counterpart’s reality. Psychologists Kahneman and Tversky discovered that people will take more risks to avoid a loss than to realize a gain. Use your counterpart’s loss aversion to persuade them that they will lose something if the deal falls through.

  12. Get your counterpart to say, “That’s right!” Once they say this, you’ve reached a breakthrough moment—they are acknowledging that you understand where they are coming from.

  13. Columbia Business School psychologists found that job applicants who named a range received significantly higher salaries than those who offered a single number. If your goal is $60,000, give the range of $60,000-$80,000 and they’ll likely come back with $60,000—or higher. Give the number $60,000, however, and they’ll likely offer you less.

  14. The person who is really in control in a conversation is the one who is listening—the talker is revealing information while the listener can direct the conversation toward his own goals.

  15. The first step to dealing with any counterpart is to identify their negotiating style. Are they an Accommodator, an Assertive, or an Analyst?

  16. Psychologist Kevin Dutton coined the phrase “unbelief”—active resistance to what the other side is saying. As a negotiator, your role is to stop the other side from unbelieving; give them the illusion of control through asking for help with calibrated questions.

  17. Calibrated questions such as, “How can I do that?” gently push your counterpart to search for other solutions. The negotiation becomes an information-gathering process where your counterpart is vested in creating the outcome that you want.

  18. Approaching deadlines—whether real or merely an arbitrary line in the sand—make people do impulsive things. Research by UC Berkeley professor Don A. Moore found that when negotiators tell their counterparts about their deadline, they get better deals.

  19. When someone seems irrational, they most likely are not—they’re just being driven by a constraint or hidden desire that you haven’t uncovered yet, or they’re operating on bad information.

  20. Any negotiation requires preparation, an outline of your tools. This is the “one sheet” that summarizes your approach.

SUMMARY

Negotiation is not about creating a win-win situation, finding a compromise, or getting to yes—it’s about connecting with your counterpart so that you can figure out what they really want and using that to get what you want. The key is to practice active listening and tactical empathy: make counterparts feel safe enough to reveal themselves. Frame the negotiation using tools like mirroring (repeating your counterpart’s key words), labeling your counterpart’s fears, and asking calibrated questions that start with “How...?” or “What...?” The first “no” is not the end of the negotiation, but the beginning. Once you get your counterpart to say, “That’s right!” you’ve reached a turning point. Figure out your counterpart’s negotiation style: are they an Analyst, an Accommodator, or an Assertive? Prepare for any negotiation by drawing up a one-sheet list of five key points that summarize your approach. 

Active listening and tactical empathy

Not every negotiation is as high stakes as a hostage situation where lives are on the line; but in any negotiation emotions can run high and you can be blindsided by surprises. Whatever you are trying to achieve, remember that every negotiation is a process of discovery. Your aim is to uncover as much information as possible.

Active listening

Your first goal is to identify what your counterpart actually needs and to get them to feel safe enough to talk about what they really want. Make the other person and what they have to say your sole focus—not your position or argument, but theirs. Start by listening; it’s the only way to create enough trust and safety for a real conversation.

As you speak, slow things down, otherwise you risk undermining the trust and rapport you are trying to build. And smile, as it creates a feeling of collaboration and problem solving instead of fight and resist.

Use a positive, easy-going, even playful voice, to get your counterpart to relax and open up. You can also try the “late-night FM DJ” voice—inflected downward, calm, and slow. Occasionally there may be times to use an assertive voice, but most of the time this will just create pushback so use it sparingly.

Mirror what the other person is saying: repeat their last three words (or most important one-to-three words). People are drawn to what is similar and fear what is different. By mirroring what someone says, you encourage them to bond with you, to keep talking, and ultimately to reveal their strategy. Mirroring even works on the most forceful type-A personality, the person who looks for consent rather than collaboration: use the soothing “late night FM DJ” voice, start with “I’m sorry...”, mirror their words, leave a long pause of four or more seconds so that the mirror works its magic, and repeat. This tactic is a way of saying “help me understand” without triggering your counterpart’s defensiveness.

Tactical empathy

In any negotiation, aim to create an empathic relationship that encourages your counterpart to expand on their situation. Imagine yourself in their shoes—you don’t have to agree with them, just acknowledge their situation. Once the other person realizes that you are listening, they are more likely to tell you something that you can use.

Focus first on clearing away any barriers to reaching an agreement. Denying that the barriers exist just gives them power; get them out into the open. Similarly, label your counterpart’s fears—this disrupts the power of a negative thought or emotion, essentially short-circuiting the amygdala, the part of the brain that reacts to real or imaginary threats. Labeling reinforces and encourages positive feelings, so you can get more quickly to a place of trust. Use phrases such as “It sounds like...” or “It looks like...” Avoid saying “I’m hearing...” If you start with the word “I” it will raise your counterpart’s guard. Keep the labeling neutral.

After you label a barrier, or mirror a statement, pause to let it sink in. Your counterpart will inevitably fill the silence.

Researchers at Princeton University used an fMRI brain-scan to discover that people who paid the most attention, i.e., really good listeners, could actually anticipate what a speaker was about to say. Practice good listening—it will help you to develop emotional empathy. This is not the same as being nice or agreeing with everything someone says, it’s about understanding where they are coming from.

Oprah

In her daily TV show, Oprah was a master practitioner of these skills. She was able to get the person she was interviewing to talk about their deepest secrets, using a smile to ease the tension, signaling empathy with subtle verbal and nonverbal signals, and speaking slowly.

The importance of no

Most people assume that the goal of a negotiation is to get the other side to say “yes.” But in fact, pushing for a “yes” makes people defensive. Often, the word “yes” is a counterfeit (“I don’t really mean it, I just want you to go away”), or a confirmation (a simple affirmation with no promise of action), not an actual commitment. As a negotiator, you have to get past the counterfeit and confirmation yesses in order to get to the real commitment.

“No” vs. “yes”

Although the end goal of any negotiation is to get your counterpart to say “yes,” don’t try to get there too quickly. Instead, start with getting to “no”—often, the word “no” just means “wait” or “I’m not comfortable with that.” Once you hear that first “no,” the real negotiation begins.

Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, says, “Every ‘No’ gets me closer to a ‘Yes.’” You can start by purposely mislabeling your counterpart’s emotion, prompting them to say, “No, that’s not it at all, it’s really this...” Or, ask the other party what they don’t want—it leaves them much more open to saying what they really do want.

When someone says “no” they feel more comfortable and in control. By getting them to say what they don’t want, you’re allowing them to define their space and be confident enough to listen to you. You have to train yourself not to hear “no” as a rejection but as a substitute for something like, “I’m not ready to agree yet,” or “I don’t understand.” Once you hear that no, pause, and ask a solution-based question or simply label the effect: “What about this doesn’t work for you?” or “It seems like there’s something here that bothers you.”

This approach even works in an email. If you’re trying to work with someone and they keep ignoring your messages, provoke a “no” response with a simple one-sentence email: “Have you given up on this project?” Odds are, the other person will respond with something like, “No, it’s just that other issues have cropped up and...”

Don’t compromise

Never split the difference—it leads to dreadful outcomes. Imagine, you want to wear your black shoes, but your spouse wants you to wear the brown ones. If you split the difference, you end up wearing one black shoe and one brown! Compromising is just an easy cop-out, a way to feel safe.

That’s right!

In any conversation we are trained to throw out nice phrases like “yes” and “you’re right”—but in a negotiation, when someone says these things, they are really trying to get you to go away or back down. It’s a polite way to say, “I’m not really interested in what you have to say.” If you tell someone “you’re right” they may go away happy, but you haven’t really agreed to do anything. Instead, you want to get your counterpart to say, “That’s right!” Once they say this, you’ve reached a breakthrough moment—they are acknowledging that you understand where they are coming from.

The best way to trigger “that’s right!” is by giving a summary, something that identifies, rearticulates, and emotionally affirms their world. For example, ask “How will we know we’re on track?” When your counterpart answers, summarize what they say until you get to “That’s right.” Now you know they’ve bought in.

Anchor the starting point

People are emotional and irrational animals—as a negotiator, your task is to see below the surface, understand what is really motivating your counterpart, and bend their reality by anchoring their starting point. The person who is really in control in a conversation is the one who is listening—the talker is revealing information while the listener can direct the conversation toward his own goals.

Deadlines

Approaching deadlines—whether real or merely an arbitrary line in the sand—make people do impulsive things. Research by UC Berkeley professor Don A. Moore found that when negotiators tell their counterparts about their deadline, they get better deals.

Similarly, your counterpart’s deadline can work to your advantage—car dealers are more likely to give you the best price near the end of the month, when their transactions are being assessed. Corporate salespeople are more vulnerable when the quarter is coming to a close.

Don’t think that a deadline means you have to reach an agreement no matter what: no deal is better than a bad deal.

Bend their reality

People will take more risks to avoid a loss than to realize a gain. Called Loss Aversion, this reaction was discovered by psychologists Kahneman and Tversky in 1979 in their work on how people choose between options that involve risk. For the negotiator, this means that you have to persuade your counterpart that they will lose something if the deal falls through.

Start by anchoring their emotions: “I have a lousy proposition for you ... still, I wanted to bring you this before I take it to anyone else.” Suddenly, your counterpart is more focused on not losing out to the next guy than on whether they love the proposition.

Another tactic is to avoid mentioning a number or price—let your counterpart be the first to do so. Alternatively, you can allude to a range, but one with an extreme anchor. This can work really well in salary negotiations. Columbia Business School psychologists found that job applicants who named a range received significantly higher overall salaries than those who offered a single number. If your goal is $60,000, give the range of $60,000-$80,000 and they’ll likely come back with $60,000—or higher. Give the number $60,000, however, and they’ll likely offer you less than that.

Calibrated questions

Psychologist Kevin Dutton coined the phrase ‘unbelief’—active resistance to what the other side is saying. As a negotiator, your role is to stop the other side from unbelieving; you do this by giving them the illusion of control through asking for help with calibrated questions.

Open-ended or calibrated questions remove aggression from the conversation by acknowledging the other side. A calibrated question starts with the words “how...” or “what...” By implicitly asking your counterpart for help, you give them the illusion of control while eliciting important information. For example, if your counterpart is getting ready to leave, instead of saying, “You can’t leave” ask, “What do you hope to achieve by leaving?”

Similarly, repeatedly asking, “How can I do that?” gently pushes your counterpart to search for other solutions. Often, it will actually get them to bid against themselves. In essence, the negotiation becomes an information-gathering process where your counterpart is vested in creating the outcome that you want.

This is a standard tactic in hostage negotiations. When kidnappers make demands the negotiator will open with something like, “How do I know the person is OK?” Invariably, the kidnapper offers to put the person on the phone.

Avoid just asking “Why...?” In any language, that can come off with an accusatory undertone to the listener.

When you do hear a “yes,” how do you know it’s not counterfeit or a mere confirmation? Use the Rule of Three: with a combination of calibrated questions, summaries, and labels get your counterpart to reaffirm their agreement at least three times.

Spot the liar

Pay close attention to tone of voice and body language—when the words and the nonverbal signals don’t match, you know your counterpart is lying or is uncomfortable with the deal.

Liars tend to use more words than truthful people; they also use far more third-person pronouns (him, her, it, they) rather than the first-person I, as if to distance themselves from the lie.

Black Swans

Every so often, you’ll encounter a situation that seems to make no sense and hard to conquer under conventional methods. The following steps can help you to navigate through these situations.

Find their style

The first step to dealing with any negotiator is to identify their negotiating style. Are they an Accommodator, an Assertive, or an Analyst?

The Analyst

This is a person who is methodical and diligent. They rarely deviate from their goals and they hate surprises. They also tend to be skeptical. If you’re facing an Analyst, be prepared; use clear data to drive your reason. When they go silent, it means they want to think.

If you are an Analyst, recognize that your most essential source of data is your counterpart. Smile when you speak; it will get them to open up more.

The Accommodator

This is a person who relishes the relationship and is most happy when they are communicating. They are likely to build rapport without actually agreeing to anything. Use calibrated questions to nudge them along and to uncover their true objectives. If an Accommodator goes silent, it probably means they are angry.

If you are an Accommodator, rein in your desire to chit-chat, otherwise you’ll give too much away and risk not reaching any conclusions.

The Assertive

This person believes time is money and their self-image is connected to how much they get done in a set period of time. They love to win, and they demand respect above all else. Focus carefully on what an Assertive counterpart has to say; they will only listen to you once they are convinced that you understand their point of view. They love to talk so use mirrors, along with calibrated questions, labels, and summaries, to draw them out.

If you are an Assertive, beware your tone as you can come across as harsh.

Whoever your counterpart is, but particularly if they are a bare-knuckles negotiator who relishes getting down to ‘brass tacks’ and arguing, prepare thoroughly. Design an ambitious but attainable goal, then game out all the labels, calibrated questions, and responses you can use, so that you don’t have to wing it in the actual negotiation. A bare-knuckles negotiator will try to knock you off your game early on; prepare some dodging tactics and set some boundaries. Remember, the person on the other side of the table is never the problem—the unsolved issue is. Focus on the issue.

Look for the Black Swan

The notion of the Black Swan was popularized by risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb—they are the unknown unknowns that can crop up in any situation. In a negotiation aim to flush them out. Start with what you do know but be flexible. Dig into the other side’s worldview, their ‘religion,’ and review everything you know about them. Use this to exploit the similarity principle by showing what you have in common.

Remember that when someone seems irrational, they most likely are not—they’re just being driven by a constraint or hidden desire that you haven’t uncovered yet, or they’re operating on bad information. Try to get face time—you can learn more in a ten-minute face-to-face meeting than in days of research.

Negotiation one sheet

Any negotiation requires preparation—not a detailed script, which can hinder your ability to be flexible, but an outline of your tools. Call it the “one sheet” that summarizes your approach (the phrase comes from the entertainment industry, where one sheet summarizes a product for publicity and sales). Your negotiation one sheet will have five short sections:

Goal

Think through the best- and worst-case scenarios and home in on a specific goal that represents the best case. Write it down.

Summary

In a couple of sentences, summarize the known facts that have led up to this negotiation. You should be able to summarize the situation in a way that gets your counterpart to say, “That’s right!”

Labels

Prepare three to five labels that can get information out of your counterpart, things like, “It seems like ... is valuable to you,” “It seems like you’re reluctant to...,” and so on.

Calibrated questions

Next, prepare three to five “what” and “how” calibrated questions to identify and overcome potential deal killers, such as:

“What are we trying to accomplish?”

“How does that affect things?”

“What happens if you do nothing?”

Be ready to use some follow-up labels to their answers: “It seems like you are worried that...”

Noncash offers

Prepare a list of noncash items that your counterpart possesses that would also be valuable; e.g., if a counterpart is unlikely to pay the full price for your work, what else will you accept that will also advance your interests.