Never Split the Difference describes the negotiation principles of former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. Contrary to more traditional beliefs, effective negotiation isn’t a matter of defeating an opponent with logic or willpower. It’s a journey of information gathering and influencing behavior that stems from the human desire to be understood and accepted.
Negotiation is scary, but we must learn to embrace it as a key part of our lives. The book forms a series of vignettes from Chris Voss’s career, where he demonstrates how these negotiation principles are applied.
Negotiation is the heart of collaboration. It is what makes conflict potentially meaningful and productive for all parties.
Throughout a negotiation, you are building rapport and establishing relationships. To reach an effective resolution to any conflict, we must treat our assumptions as hypotheses and use negotiation as a means of testing our hypotheses. It’s good to prepare for possible surprises, but a great negotiator aims to reveal surprises that are bound to exist.
We are easily distracted. We engage in selective listening, hearing only what we want to hear, our minds acting on a cognitive bias for consistency rather than truth.
Typically, both sides of the table approach a negotiation preocupied with their own arguments that they fail to listen properly. Chris Voss compares it to a state of schizophrenia, where both sides are just listening to voices in their heads. To avoid such a pitfall, you must make your sole focus the other people and what they have to say. It all starts with listening. View negotiation as a process of discovery where you aim to uncover as much information as possible.
Active listening will disarm your counterparts and make them feel safe. If they feel safe, they will open up about what they really want. Here are a few quick and simple tactics:
- Notice your counterpart’s pronoun usage. The less important he makes himself, the more important he probably is (and vice versa).
- Slow. It. Down. Going too fast is one of the biggest mistakes. People can feel like they’re not being heard, which undermines trust. Also, both sides may not have time to properly think.
- Smile! When people are in a positive frame of mind, they think better and are more likely to collaborate. Smiling even works over the phone when others can’t see your face.
There are three voice tones that negotiatiors can opt to employ when going through active listening. They have different properties and use cases.
|Voice Tone||How to use this tone||When to use this tone||Frequency of usage|
|Late-night FM DJ||Inflect your voice downward, keeping it calm and slow.||When establishing authority and trustworthiness||Used selectively to make a point|
|Positive/playful||Have a light and encouraging attitude. Relax and smile while talking.||When building rapport||Should be the default voice|
|Direct or assertive||Act and speak bluntly.||When asserting dominance/inciting pushback||Rarely; use with caution|
Mirroring is another effective active listening tactic that follows the biological principle that we fear what’s different and gravitate towards what’s similar. To implement this tactic, repeat the last three words (or critical 1-3 words) of what someone has just said.
By repeating what others say, you trigger the instinct within your counterpart to elaborate in order to sustain the connection. This is a great way to help others bond with you or reveal their strategies, and it buys you time in general.
You can a confront without a confrontation by employing active listening tactics. For example, try following the 4 steps below in a loop:
- Use the late-night FM DJ voice.
- Start with “I’m sorry…” (and ask a clarifying question).
- Silence. (Wait at least four seconds to let the mirror work its magic.)
You will cause your counterpart to pause and reflect on any demand, without inciting any strong emotions. Mirroring may feel awkward at first, but it’s a muscle for you to exercise.
Ignoring the positions of others only builds up frustration and deters them from doing what you want. We use tactical empathy to achieve the opposite effect.
Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow.
Note that empathy is not about being nice or agreeable. It’s about understanding others.
Labeling is a way of validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it. Labeling will help reinforce positive and diffuse negative emotions.
Before you can label, you need to detect the other person’s emotional state. Most of the time this can easily come from the person’s words, tone, and body language. Pay attention to how they respond to external events (or words).
The step after spotting an emotion is to label it aloud. Labels typically begin with the same words:
- “It seems like…”
- “It sounds like…”
- “It looks like…”
Avoid using “I” when labeling; it gets peoples’ guards up. You convey that you’re more interested in yourself.
Finally, after throwing out a label, pause. Be silent and listen. Let the label sink in.The magic comes from inviting the other person to reveal more feelings.
The best way to deal with negativity is to observe it without judgment. You can then label those emotions and replace them with positive thoughts. The faster you can label negative emotions and bring them into the open, the sooner those emotions will soften.
Listing out the worst things that your counterpart could say about you prepares both parties to address negative dynamics before they take root. Additionally, accusations can often sound exaggerated when said aloud, making your counterpart sometimes claim the opposite.
The first step of [“taking the sting out”] is listing every terrible thing your counterpart could say about you, in what I call an accusation audit.
Don’t forget to combine aspects of tactical empathy and active listening. They are all factors that work towards the same underlying goal. You’re dealing with a person who desires to be appreciated and understood. Listening and empathy can also reinforce positive perceptions and dynamics.
“Yes” vs “No”
Answers of “yes” and “maybe” are often meaningless or empty. Hearing a “no” gets a productive conversation going.
“No” is the start of the negotiation, not the end of it. We’ve been conditioned to fear the word “No.”
Allow others to say “No” to you. It does not necessary spell rejection, but rather can convey that your counterpart is not ready to say “Yes” yet. After a pause, you can continue by asking a solutions-based question or labeling their feelings. For example, questions like the ones below work well:
- “What about this doesn’t work for you?”
- “What would you need to make it work?”
- “It seems like there’s something here that bothers you.”
On the flip side, beware when people say “yes.” An affirmative response can be disingenuous. There are three kinds of “yes” responses:
|Type of “Yes”||What it is||When do people use it|
|Counterfeit||Your counterpart says “yes” but plans to say “no” later||When saying “yes” feels like an easier escape route, or your counterpart wants to keep the conversation going|
|Confirmation||An innocent or reflexive response to a black-or-white question||Sometimes used to lay a trap, but mostly just simple affirmation (with no promise of action)|
|Commitment||A true agreement that leads to action||When your counterpart truly has consensus|
An early “yes” often lacks real commitment. (Imagine a telemarketer asking questions that urge you answer in the affirmative.) Instead, you want to persuade people from their perspective, not ours. Start from their most basic wants; humans are driven by the primal urges to feel safe and to feel in control.
Good negotiators welcome–even invite–a solid “No” to start, as a sign that the other party is engaged and thinking.
Saying “no” gives those feelings of safety and control. Give a question that prompts a “no” answer, and your counterpart will feel that they’re in the driver’s seat by turning you down. That’s why questions like “Is now a bad time to talk?” are always better than “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
Besides making your counterpart feel comfortable saying “no,” you actually need to get them to say the word. Sometimes (say, if they’re not paying attention), you may need to purposefully antagonize them to move forward. Two ways to do this are to intentionally mislabel your counterparts by saying something totally wrong or by asking what they don’t want. Having a “no”-oriented question implying that you’re willing to walk away can prevent potential counterparts from ignoring you.
One can interpret sterring towards “yes” answers as being “nice.” But as this chapter notes, it’s more of a ruse than legitimate consensus. It’s better to have honest conflict than dishonest harmony.
The sweetest two words in any negotiation are actually “That’s right.”
The FBI developed the Behavioral Change Stairway Model to guide their negotiators on the steps towards influencing behavior. The model proposes 5 stages:
- Active listening
- Behavioral change
Chris Voss says that the words “that’s right” indicates a breakthrough in negotiation, as usually it means your counterparts have come to an ephipany and embrace what you’ve said through their own free will. However, the words “you’re right” and “yes” don’t carry the same connotation and can indicate counterfeit or confirmational responses.
Summaries can effectively trigger breakthroughs. A summary is the combination of paraphrasing your counterpart and then labeling: say the meaning of what was said and then acknowledge the emotions underlying that meaning. Combined with active listening, the whole arsenal can go as follows:
- Effective Pauses: encourage counterparts to keep talking until emotions drain out
- Minimal Encouragers: use simple phrases (e.g. “I see”) to convey that the counterpart has our attention
- Mirroring: avoid logical arguments
- Labeling: demonstrate that we know how the counterpart feels
- Paraphrase: demonstrate that we “really do understand”
- Summarize: combine the spoken words and conveyed emotions to coax out an epiphany
Bend their Reality
All negotiations are defined by hidden desires and needs. Don’t be fooled by what you immediately see on the surface.
Do not compromise; never split the difference. We’ve been trained that splitting the difference makes everybody happy, but in reality it’s a bad result for everybody (or there’s a winner and loser). The token example here is a person wearing one black shoe and one brown shoe because there’s no consensus on what color shoe to wear. We must realize that no deal is better than a bad deal.
I’m here to call bullshit on compromise right now. We don’t compromise because it’s right; we compromise because it was easy and because it saves face.
Look to figure out what people truly want and find creative ways to make negotiation a positive sum game. Good solutions always involve some degree of risk and conflict. You have to be brave.
Time (in the form of a deadline) is usually the deciding factor that pressures deals to be made. Deadlines make people impulsive and act against their best interests. Hence it’s easy to be tricked to feeling that getting a deal now is more important than getting a good deal. Such a feeling can be comparable to the “fear of missing out.”
Deadlines are often arbitrary, almost always flexible, and hardly ever trigger the consequences we think–or are told–they will.
But the truth is that deadlines are often arbitrary and flexible. (This is another reason why it’s so important to internalize that no deal is better than a bad deal.)
[When] clients begin to believe they’ve got all the time they need to conduct the negotiation right, their pateince becomes a formidable weapon.
Good negotiators force themselves to resist the urge caused by deadlines and take advantage of it in others. For instance, note that car dealers are prone to giving out better deals at the end of the month, while salespeople must close at a quarterly basis. They’re more willing to cooperate with their deadlines approaching. On the flip side, it’s not wise to hide your own deadlines; revealing your deadlines reduces risk of an impasse. Your counterpart will know to stop beating around the bush if the negotiation can’t last forever.
We view ourselves as rational actors, when we’re not. Take, for example, our perception of fairness when it comes to the ultimatum game. A player is endowed with a sum of money and must offer to split part of it with a second player. If there’s no consensus, both players receive nothing. Logically, the second player should accept literally any deal, as both players get free money. But human tend to prefer something closer to a 50/50 split due to “fairness.”
Another fun example of fairness comes if you get $1000 for doing a quick errand. You’re happy and celebrate your good fortune until you realize that doing the errand made someone else get a million dollars.
People become complacent if they feel like they’ve been treated fairly and tend lash out if they feel that something is unfair. (This is all independent of the actual result.) Hence “fair” becomes a powerful word in negotiation.
There are three tactical ways to use the “F word.”
|Type||Purpose||Example||Example of Proper Response|
|Defensive Move||Emotionally rattle counterpart into raising offer||“We just want what’s fair.”||“Let’s go back to where I started treating you unfairly and we’ll fix it.”|
|Nefarious Accusation||Manipulate you into accepting an offer||“We’ve given you a fair offer.”||“It seems like you’re ready to provide the evidence that supports that.”|
|Positive and Constructive||Set oneself up as an honest dealer||“I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly.”|
Although we mostly behave irrationally, there are consistent patterns behind the (irrational) ways we act. Prospect theory is a dominant model that describes how we handle decisions that involve risk and uncertainty.
|Certainty Effect||People are drawn to definite outcomes over probabilities, even when the latter is a better choice.|
|Loss Aversion||People will take greater risks to avoid losses than to achieve gains.|
Through prospect theory, we can extrapolate that it’s not sufficient in a negotiation to show that you can deliver what the other party wants. You must persuade them that they have something concrete to lose if the deal falls through.
- Anchor their emotions. You can start out with an accusation audit that addresses their fears. Thus they’re focused on preparing for a loss.
- Let the other party go first (most of the time). Typically you want to let the other person anchor the numbers, in case you low-ball yourself or they give you a better-than-expected out of the box. You can ignore this rule if you want to be a “shark” and throw out an extreme anchor or if you know that your counterpart is equally well-informed.
- Establish a range. Giving a favorable range anchors the other party without anybody having to make a commitment. Expect the other party to converge towards the low end of the range (and set the initial range accordingly).
- Pivot to nonmonetary terms. See if there are things unimportant to you but important to them (or vice versa). In this sense, negotitation isn’t a zero sum game. Try to bring nonmonetary factors out early, since they’re difficult to dig up.
- When you do talk numbers, use odd ones. Some numbers appear more immovable than others. If you throw out a precise number, it feels like a result of thoughtful calculation.
- Surprise with a gift. People naturally feel obligated to reciprocate unexpected acts of kindness. Give an unrelated gift or make a kind gesture, and you can gain leverage without making actual concessions.
Create the Illusion of Control
Our job as persuaders is easier than we think. It’s not to get others believing what we say. It’s just to stop them unbelieving.
The listener controls the conversation. Whomever’s talking reveals information, while the listener has the power to direct the conversation. When negotiating, directly coercing your counterparts into submission may not gain you an upper hand. It’s more effective to suspend their “unbelief” (or active resistance to your view) by giving them the illusion of control.
Avoid asking questions that can be answered with just a “yes” or simple responses. You gain no advantage or useful information, and the question rarely serves you in the big picture. Even worse, you may trigger an expectation of reciprocity, since you made someone answer your direct question.
On the other hand, asking calibrated questions can work wonders for suspending unbelief. They expend mental energy trying to solve your problems and believe it was their own idea.
By asking open-ended questions that are calibrated for a specific effect, you make others understand your problem without accusing anyone.
- They are subject to interpretation by your counterpart instead of being rigidly defined.
- You introduce ideas and requests without sounding overbearing or pushy.
- They also offer no attack surface like statements do.
Calibrated questions are not random requests for comment. They have a direction set intentionally by the asker. Figure out where you want a conversation to go and then design questions that will ease the conversation in that direction (while letting the others think it’s their choice to take you there).
There are some simple rules to help employ calibrated questions:
- Avoid verbs like “can,” “is,” “are,” “do,” or “does.” They offer closed-ended questions.
- Instead, in your sentences, start with “what,” “how,” and sometimes “why.”
- Only use “why” if you want to make your counterpart defensive. Questions starting with “why” are accusatory. Keep your tone respectful.
- Use calibrated questions early and often. You want to learn about your counterpart’s thought process as soon as possible.
- Great standby questions include “How am I supposed to do that?” and “What about this is important to you?”
Asking calibrated questions take the first step in your counterpart internalizing your way. You implicitly ask for help, triggering goodwill and lowering defenses, while using your counterpart’s mentional and emotional resources.
Calibrated questions make your counterpart feel like they’re in charge, but it’s really you who are framing the conversation.
Even when armed with the best techniques, you need to regulate your emotions. Never lose your cool in a negotiation. Everything falls apart afterwards. “Bite your tongue” when you’re about to have a knee-jerk reaction. Pause, think, and collect your thoughts. Don’t counterattack if verbally assaulted. De-escalate by asking a calibrated question.
Having an agreement means nothing unless there’s follow through. Verbal agreements may not be legitimate, and deals can fall apart due to forces behind the scenes.
“Yes” is Nothing without “How”
Asking calibrated questions beginning with “how” works well to keep negotations flowing along. They pressure your counterpart to come up with answers that solve your problems. Hence it can be really effective to repeatedly ask “How can I do that?” throughout a negotiation. Remember to ask these questions correctly such that you shape the environment such that you’ll eventually get the answer you want to hear.
The trick to the effectiveness of the “how” questions is that if correctly used, they are graceful ways to say “no” while guiding your counterpart to develop a solution more favorable to you. Another key benefit of asking these questions is that it forces your counterpart to consider and explain how a deal will actually be implemented.
Decision Makers Behind the Table
In practice, there are many more stakeholders in a negotiation than your counterpart across the table. There’s likely a committee of unseen individuals “behind the table” who influence the final decision. It takes only one of them to screw up a deal. The support of that committee is key. Make sure you analyze the entire negotation space know the values and motivations of everybody involved. Asking calibrated questions is a great way to peer into the thoughts of unseen players.
At the end of the day, the deal killers often are more important than the deal makers.
Spot Liars, Disarm Jerks, and Charm Everybody Else
Open-ended “how” questions may be the most important tool in your arsenal, but there are many other tools to spot liars, disarm jerks, and charm everybody else.
The 7-38-55 Percent Rule
- 7 percent of a message is based on the words.
- 38 percent comes from the speaker’s tone of voice.
- 55 percent comes from the speaker’s body language and facial expressions.
Make sure that the tone and body language match up with the words you hear. If you sense a lack of alignment, the speaker may be lying. Use labels to discover the reason behind this incongruence.
The Rule of Three
Recall that a “yes” response can have three different variants:
The Rule of Three says to get your counterpart agree to the same thing three times in the same conversation. It’s hard to repeatedly lie or fake enthusiasm, so you can be more certain of a repeated response.
The Pinocchio Effect
Liars tend to use more words than those telling the truth. They also use more third-person pronouns. Why? Such phrasing puts distance between them and the lie. Liars work harder to be believable.
Smart decision makers don’t want to be cornered into making a decision when talking to you. Hence like with the Pinocchio Effect, they try to distance themselves from the decision making. The harder it is to get a first-person pronoun out of their mouth, the more important they are (and vice versa).
The Andrew Discount
Using your counterpart’s name is great, but don’t overuse it either. Try using your own name. It humanizes you and forces the other side to see you as a person. Be open to introducing yourself with your name, and let them enjoy the interaction.
Eventually a negotation will come to the straight bargaining. No part of negotiation induces more anxiety and has been mishandled more. Those who have embraced bargaining will wipe the floor with you. Don’t be in that position.
You’ll be ready for the “bare-knuckle bargaining.” And they’ll never see it coming.
Types of Negotiators
People have different negotiation styles. If you don’t know how instinct will guide you or your counterparts, you’ll struggle to make effective strategies. Projecting how you think onto others is a critical mistake in negotiation. Don’t treat others the way you want to be treated; treat them the way they need to be treated.
|Characteristics||Their self-image is linked to minimizing mistakes.||Their goal is to be on great terms with their counterpart. They love the win-win.||Their self-image is linked to how many things they can get accomplished in a period of time.|
|Purpose of Time||Preparation||Relationship||Money|
|Interpretation of Silence||Opportunity to think||Anger||Opportunity to speak|
|What to do as this type||Smile when you speak; people will open up to you.||Stay likable, but don’t sacrifice your objections.||Be conscious of your tone. Soften your tone, and use calibrated questions and labels to be more approachable.|
|How to deal with this type||Use clear data, avoid surprises, and prepare well.||Be sociable and friendly. Use calibrated questions and activate their need for reciprocity.||Focus on what they have to say and mirror them. They only listen once they’re convinced you understand them.|
In the real world, good negotiators don’t look for a number that lies in the intersection of the buyer’s and seller’s ranges. They will hit hard with an extreme anchor. If you’re weak or unprepared, you’ll reveal your limits immediately.
Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
Your goal as a negotiator is to gather information relentlessly; by hearing the anchor you see your counterpart’s hand. The challenge here is to be ready to resist the emotional pressure to fold.
Deflect this “first punch” with a calibrated question. Say “no” gracefully (e.g. “How am I supposed to accept that?") or refocus the conversation (e.g. “What are we trying to accomplish?") if you need to buy time.
If you’re pressured to go first, try to avoid doing so. If you need to draw first blood, opt not to name a price but rather allude to what someone else might charge. (Giving a range here is also a good idea.)
No matter what happens, your mission here is to be a sponge. Soak up information, but absorb the punches without breaking.
If a negotiation is going nowhere, you might need to create some tension to move forward. There are effective ways to be assertive.
Sometimes a situtation simply calls for you to…punch the other side in the face.
Punch back as a last resort. Always attempt to de-escalate or take a break first. Do make enemies.
Anger can reduce one’s cognitive ability to avoid concessions, but disingenuous anger can backfire and destroy trust. Effective anger must be real, but it also needs to be controlled, as anger reduces our cognitive ability. Remember that any anger is directed at the situation, not the person. And deliver anger with confidence and self-control.
As discussed earlier, calibrated questions beginning with “why” can trigger defensiveness in others. Another use case of these questions can be to change the mind of a counterpart who’s on the fence about a decision. (For example, say something like “Why would you do that?")
You can use messages with “I” in to set a boundary and demand a time-out. Sentences like “I feel X when you do Y because Z” work quite well to capture your counterpart’s focus.
Always be Ready to Walk
Never be needy for a deal. If you can’t say “no,” you’ve taken yourself hostage. No deal is better than a bad deal. You must always be willing to walk away.
The Ackerman model is an offer-counteroffer method. It beats out normal bargaining, which usually ends up having negotiators meet in the middle.
- Set your target goal.
- Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target.
- Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85%, 95%, and 100%).
- Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “no” to move your counterpart before you change your offer.
- For the final number, use a precise, non-round number. That’ll give the number credibility.
- When you’re at your final number, throw in a non-monetary item that’s not of high value to you to demonstrate that you’re at your limit.
The original offer sets an extreme anchor. Afterwards, follow-up offers should come sparingly. Ideally, your counterpart should make some offers, and you should probe them with calibrated questions. If you give out a new offer, try to play on the need for reciprocity to get some concessions. The difference between your offer numbers should have exponential decay to convinue your counterpart that they are squeezing you dry. At the final offer number, throw in a concession to make them feel better.
Find the Black Swan
You can think everything’s going right in a negotiation until it’s not. Respect the unknown unknowns. What you know should guide you but not blind you. Every situtation is different, so we must remain adaptable to whatever might happen.
The problem is that conventional questioning and research techniques are designed to confirm known knowns and reduce uncertainty. They don’t dig into the unknown.
Both sides in a negotiation have Black Swans that, if discovered, may change the dynamic of the negotiation. The challenge is to uncover these Black Swans. Uncovering Black Swans require a mindset change. You have to embrace more nuanced ways of listening. Ask lots of questions, notice nonverbal cues, and voice your observations.
It is the person best able to unearth, adapt to, and exploit the unknowns that will come out on top.
Why are Black Swans so great? They’re leverage multipliers. Leverage is the ability to inflict loss and withhold gain. If you learn what your counterpart wants to gain and what they fear losing, you build influence over their thoughts and actions.
Leverage has many inputs, like time, necessity, and competition. For example, if you need to sell your house now and there’s only one interested buyer, there’s a lot of leverage against you.
To get leverage, you have to persuade your counterpart that they have something real to lose.
There are three types of leverage:
|Positive Leverage||The ability to withhold or prevent what your counterpart wants. You inflict pain by withholding desires.|
|Negative Leverage||The ability to make your counterpart suffer. Don’t use this directly; it’s best to label and and show that it exists.|
|Normative Leverage||The ability to make your counterpart feel like a hypocrite. Everybody has rules or morals. They will bend if you show inconsistencies between their beliefs and actions.|
Understanding their Worldview
Understanding your counterpart’s “religion” or worldview is a great way to find Black Swans about them. They may have different values or thought processes that might go over your head.
We trust people more when they seem similar or familiar. Belonging is a primal instinct. That’s why negotiatiors spend large amounts of time building rapport before negotitations begin. It’s a great information gathering opportunity, and it makes counterparts open up to each other.
You may think that your counterparts are crazy, but it’s probably not the case. Thinking that way doesn’t help anyway. Consider the following possibilities:
- They are ill-informed. For instance, if someone thinks you’re scamming them, they may not reason with you.
- They are constrained. They may not be allowed to work with you for reasons outside of their control.
- They have other interests. Your counterpart may have totally unrelated desires or values such that they don’t act accordingly to what you think they want.
Tactics to Uncover Black Swans
When it doesn’t make sense, there’s cents to be made.
- Get face time. Recall the 7-38-55 rule. You miss out on the bulk of information available if you’re only communicating over email. It’s worth taking the effort to have in-person communications.
- Observe unguarded moments. During formal negotations, everybody puts on a serious face. Pay extra attention before and after you talk business, and during interruptions or anything that interrupts the flow. You want to peer into your counterpart’s geniune self.
- Review everything you hear. You’re bound to miss something the first time through, so you’ll likely uncover some gems when reflecting on what happened. Having backup liseners whose only job is to listen between the lines can account for your blind spots.
If this book accomplishes only one thing, I hope it gets you over that fear of conflict and encourages you to navigate it with empathy.
People fear conflict. There’s a natural fear that conflict will escalate into personal attacks that they can’t handle. As a result, we see people compromise across the board on their own interests to avoid looking greedy or selfish. In close relationships, they become bitter and lose interest. Note that negotiation isn’t a matter of winning, bullying, or humiliating. Standing your ground with your wants and needs actually energizes collaborative problem solving.
When going through life, don’t avoid honest conflict. It will save your relationships and brighten your future. Regular, thoughtful conflict acts as the basis of both effective negotiation and of life.