Never split the difference (Negotiation) – Book review and summary

Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator, TED speaker, author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It. In this book, Voss uses his experiences from dealing with crises to explain how many of his tactics are actually applicable to normal folks like you and I. As he puts it, “Getting what you want out of life is all about getting what you want from – and with – other people.” Whether you’re talking down a kidnapper or convincing a toddler to go to bed, it all comes down to the same core negotiation skills.

Voss shows in this book, that you don’t have to be an FBI-trained veteran to bargain effectively. You don’t even have to like conflict. Many believe that successful negotiating hinges on reasoning and raw intellect, and other famous books on negotiation, such as Getting to Yes and Thinking, Fast and Slow, reinforce this impression. According to Voss, this approach is mistaken, because humans are, fundamentally, irrational. Voss brands his style of negotiation as “tactical empathy”: understanding the deeper motivations behind your counterpart’s demands and actions. The idea here, is to make your counterparts in a negotiation feel that they came up with your desired solution themselves, giving them the illusion of control. 

Voss’s preferred tools for accessing these deeper motivations are open-ended questions, used with the correct tone, and in a proper sequence. Doing so buys time, and rebalances the power dynamic. He also recommends performing what he calls an “accusation audit” before a negotiation to anticipate potential criticism the other party might present. Acknowledging these “accusations” at the beginning of the encounter will help you build trust and credibility. This would include things like saying “I know this might sound like I’m being an a**hole, but ….” – it kinda preemptively addresses issues in the other party’s head.

Voss encourages negotiators to pay careful attention to the other party’s answers, as well as nonverbal clues like body language and facial expressions. As Voss shows, when people feel you are really listening to them, they’re more likely to stay calm and listen to you. Voss recommends a few methods to show that you’re listening carefully: mirroring (repeating the last one to three words the other negotiating party said, typically in question form), labelling (identifying, out loud, the emotion that the other party seems to be experiencing) and responding (addressing the other party’s concerns in good faith).

Early in the book, Voss describes a negotiation or argument in a memorable way- he said it typically appears to be a discussion between two people, but in fact involves FOUR. The two people you see, and the two people inside their heads. This made a lot of sense to me, and it made the case for active listening so abundantly clear. More often than not, we are so caught up thinking about how we will reply to the other person, we don’t truly absorb their position – so simply turning off the voice inside your own head, will lead to listening attentively, and this in turn allows the other person to feel heard – and at this point you’re already winning.

To show his techniques in a more practical light, Voss begins each chapter with the story of a hostage negotiation. He breaks down each event, explaining what worked and pointing out any things that might have been done better. Voss also includes various examples from other, less extreme contexts, such as salary negotiations and car purchases. He offers plenty of advice for the novice negotiator, such as embracing the initial “no,” disregarding deadlines, using controlled anger strategically and letting the other party set the price first. Voss lets readers know which other theories of negotiation work, like the Ackerman bargaining method, and which ones usually backfire.

The hostage anecdotes are pretty awesome, even if they are somewhat unbelievable. For example; Even after accounting for creative freedom, it’s hard to believe that Voss actually conducted a quick survey of three freshly-handcuffed hostage takers to find out why they gave up when they did – much less that they all gave identical answers! It’s also hard to believe that a hostage-taking international warlord really called the FBI’s local negotiator after a crisis resolution to tell him that he deserved a promotion. Voss also recalls mistakes he made during negotiations, but never any of his own outright failures; In every negotiation described in the book – where he was personally involved – the hostage makes it out alive. Maybe that’s true of his career, maybe not. It doesn’t outright affect the messages, just left me curious.

The book uses a rather conversational tone that makes Voss come across as ultra-confident and self-assured. It would not surprise me if many find this a little “promotional”. Actually, the book is essentially one long plug for Voss’s consulting firm. As with any text that makes sweeping generalisations about human behaviour, his attempts to offer wholly original ideas fall a bit short of the mark. To many readers, Voss’s psychological insights may seem painfully obvious – such as the notion that people, generally, have both outward emotions and inward ones, and that these two do not always align. He also focuses on negotiations between two parties, so this book may not satisfy readers who need guidance on how to manage multiparty arrangements.

Despite the above criticism, in my view the book is still worth reading. Not only is it entertaining, there is no doubt that readers new to negotiation will learn some basic principles and even more experienced ones will get a handy refresher. Some of the highlights are when he offers examples of how to practice some of the skills he discusses via role-playing games (“sixty seconds or she dies” is great). Of course, as with any skill, there’s no substitute for experience… but this book is a pretty good place to start.

– F

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