Never Split The Difference

By Chris Voss

Rating: 10/10

Best Line #1: You’re going to have to embrace regular, thoughtful conflict as the basis of effective negotiation—and of life. Please remember that our emphasis throughout the book is that the adversary is the situation and that the person that you appear to be in conflict with is actually your partner.

Best Line #2: “Why” is always an accusation, in any language

Negotiation is endlessly fascinating and every book on the topic has something to offer. Many authors study it from an analytical, business-oriented point of view. For them, the objective is machine-like optimization. This approach has its merits. Negotiation is a game and game theory does indeed apply.

There is, of course, more that happens outside the sterile environment of the game. In fact, the emotional and psychological factors are much richer, more individualized, and far more influential. This is where the real mastery awaits. Negotiating from a rational, analytical point of view is like painting by numbers—crude but effective. Adding a deliberate strategy for emotion and psychology is like graduating to the artist’s canvas.

It gives you more freedom, more possibility. But with a higher degree of difficulty. And I think that’s the part about Never Split The Difference that fascinates me most: this is one of those rare instances of someone imparting wisdom that is easy to use but difficult to master. The author and former FBI negotiator Chris Voss can make it sound so easy. Some of these things are. But the sequence and the timing is dreadfully difficult.

This week has focused on establishing a new understanding for negotiation and illustrating that approach through some simple-yet-powerful techniques. The posts have included the following:

A Better Way To Ask

What Great Listeners (And Negotiators) Do

Label Emotions To Improve Situations

Getting To No

I’ll highlight some additional wisdom below.

Questions: The Heart of Negotiation

I knew this book was for me when it started to describe all the mistakes I’d been making. When a book captures that, it’s like the author wrote it specifically for you. Such was the case with Voss’s study of calibrated questions.

What are these, you may ask? Voss writes the following:

Calibrated questions have the power to educate your counterpart on what the problem is rather than causing conflict by telling them what the problem is.

It reminds me of the indirect power of the adage “Show don’t tell.” You want to demonstrate the issues rather than preach about them. Questions are the way to do that.

Think of an attorney that “leads the witness” with their questions. An attorney does this so that the witness can fully inhabit the same flow of logic that the attorney is using. But this is an imperfect example. The attorney does this for the sake of the jury. It’s argumentative.

A negotiator does this for the sake of their counterpart. It’s persuasive. And collaborative.

So while an attorney’s work to “lead the witness” gives you a sense of the idea, a better example is The Socratic Method of education. This has broad application to all manner of dialogue. It starts with the idea that if you want someone to learn, give them the question instead of the answer.  

Why Do You Think That?

I tend to ask a lot of questions.

When I do so, the other person invariably provides initial answers that are partially accurate but a little rough. This should be expected. To calibrate the person’s understanding and sharpen their knowledge, you ask the next question, then the next one, until they start to see all the facets that go into your sense of the bigger topic and overarching answer.

It ain’t easy. Eventually, with all these questions and these vague bits of information, the student resists. They aren’t you, after all, and they don’t see things your way. They offer something different. That’s to be expected. And valued.

This approach really helps once the student starts to ask questions of their own. When they do, you then have the chance to offer answers. In doing so, the conversation leads both parties to share all information and assumptions until you arrive, collectively, at a shared point of view. In an educational setting, this means a shared understanding of the material.

In negotiation, the shared understanding isn’t so holistic. But there will be some level of agreement. All because of the questions you’ve asked.

Multi-level questions is the beating heart of Critical Thinking. So I rely on the Socratic method for nearly every conversation I have. Admittedly, it gets tiresome for others.

And that’s where the mistakes show up. Voss’s techniques are the best I’ve found and the wisdom mustn’t be limited to negotiation. Teachers and managers should learn this, too. Starting with the curious, difficult nature of the word “why”.

“Why” Is A Four-Letter Word

I once wrote about intent versus impact. The chasm between the intent of your words and the impact it has on others is the deepest source of misunderstanding. This usually happens with our statements. But it can happen with questions, too. Especially with any question that starts with the word “why”.

Voss has reminded me that I really have to stop using that word in the form of a question. Here’s what he writes:

Don’t ask questions that start with “Why” unless you want your counterpart to defend a goal that serves you. “Why” is always an accusation, in any language.

Voss’s analysis on this point, along with his prescriptions for how to ask better questions, would be enough on its own to justify the purchase of this book. The whole thing is solid gold but this part really hits me at the core.

The word “why” is a knife. It has great power to cut through a lot of stuff. But the instant you point it at other people, you immediately change the situation. It doesn’t matter how honest your intent. I’m a genuinely curious person and I used to ask people this question all the time:

“Why do you think that?”

Wow. Talk about a misstep. Turns out, if you ask another adult why they think what they think they will think that you think they’re dumb.

That is a very clumsy sentence but I like it.

Such a question is like a test. No one likes tests. And to Voss’s point, it’s also an accusation. Because as Frank Luntz said in his fabulous book Words That Work, it’s not what you say, it’s what others hear. So when I used to ask the question “Why do you think that?”, people often heard this:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

That has never been my intent but it shows how hard it is to master these sort of exchanges. Voss provides some guidance in the book. It starts with two words.

Having just two words to start with might not seem like a lot of ammunition, but trust me, you can use “what” and “how” to calibrate nearly any question.

This is such great advice. Simple yet powerful. In my case, a small example would be to soften the rather harsh question “Why do you think that?” with either …

“How did you arrive at that?”

or …

“What gave you that idea?”

I know those sound a little rough, too. But that’s because they’re out of context. In a Socratic dialogue, these questions are at the second or third level of the discussion. I think that’s true in a negotiation, too.

There are better questions to ask. Voss provides some really fantastic examples in the book. I won’t share them here, lest I give away the juiciest bits, but I strongly urge you to seek them out. And remember: replace “why” with “how” and “what”.

“Why” is a four-letter word.

You Drive A Hard Bargain

Given all the study I’ve shared on communication from other books, I imagine it’s clear to regular readers (love y’all!) that I really value the soft skills as a way to slip hard-edged rationality into what we do. Voss feels the same. He basically spends 80% of the book focused entirely on how we should talk to the other side.

Tricks, tactics, and strategies? It’s all here. But Voss obviously knows that this book is about delivering on the bottom line. You have something you want to get from the situation, something the other party probably doesn’t want to give you. At the start, anyway.

So there is an inevitable devolution into horse-trading. All the work on the front end to bond with the other party is intended to create trust and respect. It is also intended to help you identify your counterparts needs, wants, and overall style of negotiation.

Voss explains that there are three basic negotiating styles: accommodator, assertive, and analyst.

As implied, the accommodator loves the win-win. They also love the free flow of information. They also irritate the heck out of the other types who want to get down to brass tacks. But the relationship is what matters here. Without it, they don’t want to adjust to your needs.

Analysts take their time and have the details all in place. You can’t ask them too many questions because they expect you to have prepared, too. Which means you should already have those first-level questions answered.

Additionally, talk isn’t the analyst’s strong suit. Here’s the data, they think. Here’s the analysis. What else could you possibly want? Yet, as ironclad as that analysis may be, there’s always room within that data to operate. Maneuvering within the known facts is the key to negotiating with them.

Assertives like to talk as much as accommodators but they’re preachy. And weirdly impatient. They want to talk but they also want this conversation to be done in 59 minutes so they can move on to the next 59-minute negotiation. They are deeply motivated by agreement. If you share their point of view, they’ll be deeply amenable to other ideas. Because they’ll feel that they’ve at least asserted the conditions for an agreement.

These three types make for a fantastic framework. It is sensible on the surface and yet it’s also really deep. The real value comes in understanding the ways you identify each style. Voss has great insights into that. Knowing how to communicate with each category is relatively intuitive, so long as you identify the style accurately.

Working within the parameters of each style is a helpful way to build trust and empathy for when the real horse-trading occurs. At that point, you should “drive a hard bargain” with a more universal, methodical approach.

The Ackerman Method

Voss names this method after its creator, an ex-CIA professional named Mike Ackerman. I can’t imagine how tense it would be to do apply this with kidnappers and bank robbers but it clearly works. Not because it helps you meet in the middle (something Voss hilariously calls a “wimp-win”). Instead, helps you maximize your desired result while helping the other party feel accommodated. It’s like mixing the best of all three negotiation styles into a single, condensed mixed-martial art attack.

Here’s the method in brief. Please read the broader context of all that Voss offers before attempting to use it:

  1. Set your target price (your goal).
  2. Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target price.
  3. Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95, and 100 percent).
  4. Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer.
  5. When calculating the final amount, use precise, non round numbers like, say, $37,893 rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight.
  6. On your final number, throw in a non monetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.

Again, I think it’s vital to read the broader context. There are reasons why this sequence works and it all comes down to understanding those nuances before you can do this with confidence.

For example, when do you introduce Step One of this method? How? And what do you do when the other party reacts terribly?

Do this incorrectly and you’ll blow all the careful work you’ve done to get to this point. You’ll appear to be a low-baller. Or a poser who never wanted to negotiate in the first place. So again, read the full book to understand the full picture! The Ackerman Method works well at building a favorable agreement. Just as gasoline works well at building a fire. Both are highly combustible without training.

Conclusion

We negotiate all the time. It is a necessary evil for most of us. It is something we don’t enjoy. Until we do. I don’t know what colors the experience but there are some negotiations that we actually like. The ones we have with friends can be playful and productive. The ones we have with neighbors can be respectful and clear. The ones we have with our bosses can lead to all manner of benefit.

I suppose it’s the strangers that we have the most trouble with. Negotiating with a car salesman or a potential new employer or anyone else we don’t know leads to some serious discomfort. Coincidentally, these exchanges often have the most at stake.

Voss’s method is very clear, very unique, very communicative, and it is the best I’ve found at accelerating both parties to a place of trust. Because that is the point. Voss writes numerous times about how the real opponent in this negotiation isn’t your counterpart, it’s the situation itself.  

It isn’t the car salesman’s fault that he has a quota and profit margin to maintain.

It isn’t the attorney’s fault that the other party needs $X of damages for a medical claim.

It isn’t the teacher’s fault that the school has a policy against allowing extra credit.

Your counterpart is bound by the same situation as you. They just come at it from a different angle. Should you meet in the middle? Maybe. But chances are good that you can find something that is more beneficial for you and them if you build trust, empathy, a broader understanding of the situation itself so that you can attack it together with shared goals.

Voss shows a way to do that. It’s the best way I’ve found in any of the eight negotiation books I’ve read, skimmed, or tossed after Chapter One.

You should still haggle on occasion. You should still try to give an inch and take a mile. I don’t think Voss dissuades that. After all, he negotiated against terrorists and kidnappers. He would never “meet them in the middle” with them. But he does expect us to do the work first. It’s the only way to get what you need and want. If you can’t do that, you can’t really negotiate.