Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss – Summary

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A former FBI hostage negotiator and the founder of the Black Swan Group consulting firm, Chris Voss is an expert when it comes to talking anyone into (or out of) just about anything. Years of experience in high-intensity negotiation settings led him to believe that learning to negotiate successfully can be helpful in all areas of life. Never Split the Difference is a testament to this theory.

Voss believes that most negotiations are irrational and emotionally driven. Approaching them from a rational, academic perspective often results in failure. To negotiate successfully, you must understand the psychology behind a crisis situation and improve your emotional intelligence. Central to Never Split the Difference is a method that Voss calls “Tactical Empathy.” This requires turning listening into a martial art.

What Is Never Split the Difference About?

Negotiations don’t just take place in hostage and crisis situations. Voss argues that they occur everywhere, constantly. At its core, negotiation is nothing more than communication with results. To get what you want out of life, you need to get what you want from others. In Never Split the Difference, Voss aims to teach you how to take control of the conversations that will influence your life and career. 

This Never Split the Difference summary will guide you through Voss’ negotiation techniques, so you’ll never have to compromise again.

Be a Mirror

When entering a negotiation, experts hold multiple possible hypotheses about their counterpart’s wants. They then use each new psychological insight and piece of information that their opponent reveals to narrow down which hypothesis is true. Often, people enter a negotiation viewing it as a battle between two arguments. Instead of listening to the cues and clues of their opponent, they listen to the arguments and counterarguments they are conducting in their head.

Consequently, to get ahead when entering a negotiation, focus on what the other person is saying instead of prioritizing your argument. This is similar to Stephen Covey’s “seek first to understand, then to be understood” approach that he discusses in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This is a disarming technique that encourages your counterpart to feel safe when conversing with you.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

It’s not what we say, it’s how we say it that matters in a negotiation context. Your voice is your greatest asset. Tone is everything. To be effective, you should adopt a positive, playful voice that makes you sound relaxed and good-natured. When people are put into a more positive frame of mind, they think quicker and are more open to problem-solving and collaboration. However, if the situation requires more professionalism, such as a contract negotiation, Voss suggests using what he calls the “late-night FM DJ voice.” This involves inflecting your voice downward, thus, insinuating you have everything firmly under control.

An additional tool to use in negotiations is mirroring. As humans fear what is different, when you mirror your opponent’s body language, vocabulary, and speech patterns, it encourages them to trust you as you feel familiar to them. This can be as simple as repeating the last three words your opponent has said back to them. By doing so, they will likely elaborate on what they said, and this will increase the connection between you two.

Don’t Feel Their Pain, Label It

Emotions are often the main culprit when communication has been derailed. Once people become upset, rational thinking stops functioning. Consequently, good negotiators know to identify and influence emotions instead of denying or ignoring them. The relationship between negotiators and their counterparts mirrors that of the therapeutic relationship. Just like negotiators, therapists probe their patients to understand their problems before turning their responses back to them to help them change their behaviors.

To do this effectively, you need to learn to talk less and listen more. You need to hone the skill of tactical empathy. This allows you to not only understand the feelings of your counterpart, but to comprehend what is behind those feelings. By identifying your counterpart’s feelings, labeling them, and verbalizing them back to them, you validate their emotions. This helps you get close to them.

Labeling also prevents angry, irrational outbursts. By identifying and labeling your counterpart’s fears and feelings, you prevent them from becoming enraged. You replace their negative reactions with positive, empathic ones.

Beware of “Yes,” Master “No”

For many, the answer, “no,” comes with negative connotations, but it’s what good negotiators should aim to achieve. It allows them to establish what their counterpart wants by eliminating what they don’t want. It’s also smart to remember that, “no” is usually a temporary decision, used to maintain the status quo. It gives your opponent a sense of autonomy over their decision-making, and yet, it is often malleable. Voss states that when you hear “no” while attempting to negotiate, it usually means one of the following seven things:

  1. I’m not ready to agree.
  2. You’re making me uncomfortable.
  3. I don’t understand.
  4. I can’t afford it.
  5. I want something else.
  6. I need more information.
  7. I want to talk this through with someone else.

Human behavior is driven by two needs: the need to feel secure and the need to feel in control. If you can facilitate these needs in your opponent, you will understand what lies behind their “no” answer and adapt to it.

Trigger the Two Words That Immediately Transform Any Negotiation

The two words every negotiator should long to hear are “that’s right.” It’s the winning strategy in any negotiation. To get your counterpart to agree with a statement you present to them, Voss suggests engaging in the following:

  • Effective pauses: Encourage your opponent to keep talking.
  • Minimal encouragers: Use simple phrases to provoke your opponent into revealing more about what they’re thinking.
  • Mirroring: Repeat what the opponent has said back to them.
  • Labeling: Identify and name what your opponent is feeling.
  • Paraphrasing: Repeat back what your opponent is saying in their own words.
  • Summarizing: Use a combination of labeling and paraphrasing.

When your counterpart says, “That’s right,” they feel like they’ve been seen, and they will trust you more. Once you’ve shown them that you understand their dreams and feelings, change becomes possible, and you’ve paved your way to a successful negotiation.

Bend Their Reality

In a negotiation, you have the possibility to bend your counterpart’s reality to conform to what you’re willing to give them. Voss argues strongly against creating a win/win situation as they often lead to disastrous results. When you’re negotiating, you don’t want to compromise. Often, no deal is better than a bad deal.

A common barrier to settling for splitting the difference is the perceived threat of time running out. Voss states that to be an effective negotiator, you need to resist succumbing to the pressure of deadlines, most of which are imaginary. Deadlines are often arbitrary and rarely result in the negative consequences you think they will. Consequently, they frequently derail negotiations unnecessarily.

By understanding what is driving your opponent, you can bend their reality. However, what motivates your counterpart will change dependent on their perceived levels of fairness. According to economist Daniel Kahneman’s “Prospect Theory,” people are drawn to sure things over probabilities, even when the probability is a better choice. Voss argues that you can use this to your advantage by engaging in the following:

1. Anchor Their Emotions 

To bend your counterpart’s reality effectively, you must start with a basis of empathy. By anchoring their emotions, you can insinuate that they have a lot to lose. This will trigger their “loss aversion,” and they will do anything to prevent a perceived loss.

2. Let Your Counterpart Go First … Most of the Time

As neither side in a negotiation can totally predict what an opponent is willing to offer, it’s best to let your counterpart state their offer first to know what you’re working with. However, if you’re negotiating with a pro, they may start with an extremely high offer in an attempt to bend your reality. This is known as the “anchor and adjustment” effect. Being aware of this tactic allows you to rebuff it. 

3. Establish a Range

Establishing a range means offering your opponent the illusion of an offer and, in doing so, bending their reality. This means that when naming your terms, you refer to a similar deal that establishes the best possible “ballpark” range you’d be willing to work within. However, it’s important to understand that if you offer a range, you can expect your opponent to offer you the lower end of it.

4. Pivot to Non-Monetary Terms

Once you’ve anchored your counterpart to a high figure, consider offering them additional things that aren’t important to you but that might be important to them. Alternatively, if the offer is low, consider asking for things that are of worth to you but not so much to them.

5. When You Do Talk Numbers, Use Odd Ones

Every number has a psychological significance beyond its value. Some appear more immovable than others. All numbers that end in a “0” feel temporary and negotiable. Any figure that sounds less rounded, such as $37,789, sounds like a figure you arrived at after much consideration. Consequently, they sound more substantial and are more likely to be taken seriously.

6. Surprise With a Gift

You can often make your opponent feel more generous if, after attempting to anchor an extreme set of terms, you offer them an unrelated surprise gift. Gestures such as this put your opponent on the back foot, as they feel they have to reciprocate your generosity. This is a tactic Robert Greene discusses in his book The 48 Laws of Power.

Create the Illusion of Control

Successful negotiation involves getting your counterpart to do the work for you and suggesting your solution themselves. Thus, you give them a sense that they are in control when it’s you that’s pulling all the strings. By presenting your opponent with an open-ended question, it allows them to feel like they are controlling the conversation, even though you’re that one that’s dictated the boundaries. Such questions remove aggression from the dialogue and allow you to introduce ideas without sounding pushy. 

A further advantage of using open-ended questions is that they don’t include any definite statements that can be used as a target for attack. Instead, they can be used to better explain your side of the conflict to your opponent. If they approach you with a seemingly impossible demand, by asking them, “How am I supposed to do that?” you immediately invite them to see things from your perspective while encouraging them to solve the situation on your behalf. 

Voss suggests that you should use open-ended questions as early and as often as you can during a negotiation. Here are a few he uses in nearly every negotiation setting:

  1. What about this is important to you?
  2. How can I help to make this better for us?
  3. How am I supposed to do that?
  4. How can we solve this problem?
  5. How would you like me to proceed?
  6. What’s the objective?
  7. What is it that brought us into this situation?

Guarantee Execution

As a negotiator, you’re not only responsible for getting to an agreement, you’re also responsible for seeing it implemented. A “yes” is meaningless without a “how.” Defining the terms of a successful negotiation with your counterpart is key. As discussed previously, open-ended questions are an excellent resource for getting your opponent to engage in “forced empathy” and to solve the dilemma for you. Voss suggests using the following open-ended questions to ensure that any agreement is carried out:

  1. How will we know we’re on track?
  2. How will we address things if we’re off track?

Further, to see a successful negotiation in action, you must ensure that you’ve understood the motivations of everyone involved in your opponent’s team. If members of the team are affected by the outcome, they may resist the agreement and cause problems later. Consequently, before reaching an agreement, Voss suggests some possible questions to ask your counterpart to ensure everyone is on board:

  1. How does this affect everyone else?
  2. How committed is the rest of your team?
  3. How do we deliver the right material to the right people?

In addition to a series of carefully chosen open-ended questions, Voss suggests a range of additional tools to help secure your negotiation:

The 7-38-55 Percent Rule

Albert Mehrabian, a psychology professor at UCLA, discovered that only seven percent of a message is conveyed from the words used, while 38 percent comes from tone of voice, and 55 percent from body language. Consequently, Voss states that you should pay close attention to your body and how you’re using your voice in a negotiation. You must embody what you are trying to convey.

The Rule of Three

Voss argues there are three types of “yes” answers: commitment, confirmation, and counterfeit. By getting your counterpart to agree to the same thing three times in a conversation, you triple the chances that they have committed to their agreement. For example, once they agree to a commitment, you could ask them to summarize their answer to get your second “yes.” Then, you could ask an open-ended “how” or “what” question to get to your third “yes.”

The Pinocchio Effect

Learn how to spot a liar. Harvard Professor Deepak Malhotra discovered that liars use more words and more third-person pronouns than those telling the truth. They also speak in more complex sentences to override any suspicion cast in their direction.

The Chris Discount

While frequently using your counterpart’s name in conversation is a tried-and-tested technique that encourages them to open up, it can be overused. Instead, Voss suggests using your name. This could mean introducing yourself by name, making you seem more personal and encouraging trust in your opponent.

Bargain Hard

There comes a moment in most negotiations when the informal interplay between the two parties switches into direct confrontation. This is when you must use your bargaining skills if you want to get what you want. However, the act of bargaining makes most people feel uncomfortable, so it is often the part of a negotiation that is most frequently mishandled. To bargain well, you must understand the subtle play of psychological factors that are involved in the bargaining process.

When you get to the bargaining process, you’ll want your opponent to name a price first. If they try to anchor their price high, try to manage your emotions and deflect this attempt with an open-ended question such as, “How am I supposed to accept that?” Alternatively, you can derail the conversation away from the extreme anchor by pivoting to non-monetary terms. This allows you to establish what, besides money, would be a good deal for you.

Find the Black Swan

According to Voss, a “Black Swan” is a hidden, unexpected piece of information that can completely upend a negotiation dynamic. To avoid being blind-sided by a Black Swan, you mustn’t let what you know cloud what you don’t know. You must remain flexible and adaptable, never overvaluing your experience and ignoring the informational and emotional reality of the current negotiation context.

Voss states that from his experience as an FBI hostage negotiator, everyone comes to the negotiation table with at least three Black Swans. That means, everyone is in possession of three pieces of information that could sway the discussion. To identify a Black Swan, you need to hone a specific mindset. You must ask many questions, become an intuitive listener, and voice your observations with your counterpart.

The Three Types of Leverage

Black Swans are essentially leverage multipliers. In a negotiation, the side that feels they have the most to lose if the discussion collapses has the least leverage. As a negotiator, you have to convince your counterpart that they have more to lose than you if the deal falls through. There are three types of leverage you can use:

  1. Positive Leverage: Simply put, this means withholding the things that your opponent wants. By delaying making an offer, you hold onto your leverage for longer.
  2. Negative Leverage: This requires subtly threatening your counterpart. For example, if they don’t provide “X,” then you won’t provide “X.” To find a Black Swan that can be used as negative leverage, identify what is important to your opponent, what worries them, and then use this against them.
  3. Normative Leverage: This entails using your opponent’s morals and norms to your advantage. If you can point out discrepancies between their beliefs and their actions, you’ll gain the upper hand, as they’ll want to avoid looking like a hypocrite.

Overcoming Fear and Getting What You Want Out of Life

Most people fear conflict, so they miss out on engaging in useful arguments to their advantage. This is just as relevant in the boardroom as it is in a personal relationship. Yet, Voss asks you to consider what it is that you’re actually afraid of in these contexts. The fight-or-flight response is merely an ancient piece of hardwiring, programmed to ensure we get along with members of our tribe. Consequently, it’s not the person you’re negotiating with that scares you, it’s conflict itself. 

However, you can use the takeaways from Never Split the Difference to negotiate with empathy. To become great in any area of life, you have to learn how to embrace conflict. When you do, you’ll begin to realize that, while the person sitting opposite you may appear to be your adversary, they’re actually your partner.

You can buy Never Split the Difference on Amazon.