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Book Summary: Never Split the Difference, by Chriss Voss

Article reading time: 10 min

Book reading time: 4 hours and 13 min

Chris Voss was an international hostage negotiator. He explains the tactics he’s learned about human communication and psychology. This book is as good as its title is lame. 10/10.

Negotiations start by assuming the unknown. Therefore, you must discover that which you do not know. You do so by actively listening, trying to find out what it is that the person you are negotiating with is seeking, and why. Your purpose is to get them to talk and feel safe with you.

Slow it down. Take your time.

Your most powerful tool is your voice. Make it deep, soothing, like a midnight radio DJ.

Use mirroring to get people to talk (repeat the last three words they said, whether through a question or simply by repeating).

When you are negotiating and want the partner to change their offer:
-Take a deep soothing voice.
-Say “I am sorry” + last 3 words of the person
-Wait for them to start speaking again.


“I went on holidays to Thailand.”
– To Thailand?
– Yeah. My partner had never been there and she really wanted to pet elephants.
– Petting elephants?
– Yeah dude, that’s crazy, there is that place where you can go and….”

Being right isn’t the key to a successful negotiation – having the right mindset is.

Labeling: telling the others what they are feeling to show understanding and to get closer to them.

Eg: the author talking to 3 guys locked with guns in an apartment: “It looks like you are afraid to come out. That you worry about whether getting killed, or going back to jail.” It is important to address the underlying emotions, the one that motivates the behavior, not the one that appears. People are not sad/frustrated because of what you said, but because of what you said meant to them. When you label emotions, you diffuse them, and show empathy, get closer to the person which increases trust, and opens the door to a negotiation to resolve the problem. Labeling diffuses the emotions. It also defuses them lol.

If you do something bad, acknowledge it right away instead of hiding it. Go directly to it, as fast as you can. It diffuses the negative feeling. Say something funny to your boss like “forgive me father, for I have sinned” or start with “Look, I am an a**hole”.

Assemble the two tactics from above: label what others will think of you when the relationship is sour before they start talking. Tell them “you may feel cheated because we promised you x y z and you didn’t get it”. EMPATHY IS A POWERFUL EMOTIONS. If they did feel cheated, the fact that you acknowledge it and diffuse the feeling will make them feel less cheated. They feel listened.

To establish a good negotiation, use tactical empathy first. Situation: getting an airline employee to give you a seat in a plane. “It seems like it was a tough day for you.” Then mirror by getting that person to talk to you about stuff that you may use later on. Once they feel comfy, label the roadblock to giving you what you want so you get it out of the way before it even happens: “I know all the planes are full and that it is a long shot for me to get a seat”, label the worse things that could be said about you: “you may think I am a horrible demanding person for asking this” and finally state your demand “but since some people may miss the flight, I was wondering if there wouldn’t be a seat for me”.

“No” is when communication starts. “No” is awesome. You need to give people the chance to say “no”, because they value autonomy very highly. When they say “no” and you acknowledge it, they feel good and trust you because you give them the space to say it. They feel in control. At ease. Once they say no, then the negotiation begins.
This lesson outlines how people need to be given a choice constantly. Never ever tell someone straight what to do. Ask them questions instead, so that they remain in control.

Instead of saying “bring me a cup of coffee”, say “would you like to bring me a cup of coffee?” When you give people the choice to say no, whatever they do for you becomes their own decision. People want to make their own decisions.

Negotiation is not about you. It is about them. You need to persuade them taking their own point of view. To do so, you start with their most basic wants.

Embrace No. Don’t get to yes with the first question. Don’t ask “have you ever wanted to be rich”? Because the “yes” you’ll get will be a forced yes and people hate it. Instead, ask to get a “no”. We love to say no. “Is now a bad time to talk”? is a good example. Instead of asking if people want to be rich, ask them if they are satisfied with their lives financially. Getting a “no” is much more powerful than getting a “yes”. Especially for sales.

1If someone is not responding, all you need to do is send an email with one sentence: “have you given up on this project?”

“That’s right” are the best words in a negotiation. You should get to them using mirroring and labeling. It usually comes at the end of the conversation when you repeat and summarize what the other person has said to make sure you both understand. If they say “that’s right”, you are winning.

“You’re right” are the worse possible words. It means “stfu”.

The more someone feels understood, the more they will want to “build” an agreement with you. Always start from a point of “agreement” where you both recognize one thing.

No deal is better than a bad deal. As such, splitting the difference usually leaves both sides bitter, even in negotiations. From what I understand, negotiation is not so much about what you are negotiating – it is whether the other side feels listened to and understood. Weirdly, negotiation is not about the end – but the process to get there.

If someone wants to wear black shoes and their wives want them to wear brown shoes, a compromise would mean he would wear one brown, and one black. That is the worst option. Don’t compromise. Never. Never split the difference.

Take your time – there is no such thing as a deadline. Deadlines are often arbitrary, almost always flexible, and hardly trigger the consequences we are told.

No deal is better than a bad deal.

Car dealers will give you better prices towards the end of the month.

Always tell your deadline. Otherwise, the other part will just make you lose time and you’ll negotiate against yourself. Don’t be afraid of not meeting the deadline. Your deadline is also the deadline of the other party (de facto).

Fairness is important to humans (mammals actually). But it is also emotional. There are three uses of the f-word: fair.
1. when you are selling your house and the buyer wants a very low price, too low for you, you can accuse him of not being fair. It will tap into his emotion and he will raise the offer.
2. when someone is asking you for proof of good faith, you can shift the focus and say you gave a fair offer.
“How do we know you will not cheat us?
– I think my offer is fair.”
3. At the beginning of a negotiation, tell your counterpart to stop you if you are being unfair to them. They will already relax.

Sales: if you can get people to tell you their real problem, you can sell them a vision of their problem that leaves your proposal as the perfect solution. If you know the emotional benefit, you can frame any deal in the language that will resonate.

Loss aversion: we hate losing much more than we like to win.

To get real leverage you have to persuade the other party they have a lot to lose if the deal falls through.

How to get better deals:
The accusation audit: it is telling an audience what they may think about you, which shows empathy, acknowledge their fears, and diffuse the feeling. It serves to anchor their emotions low, so whatever higher emotions you offer them after will seem like a good deal: “you will think that I am an a**hole”. This prepares them for the loss they are about to take. Then tell them “I want still to bring this opportunity to you before I bring it to someone else” so that they fear losing the opportunity entirely. And offer them the new deal you had in mind and for which they are losing. You anchor them by painting a horrible picture of yourself (which you are not) and by subtletly telling them they may lose the deal entirely. From this point of view, a renegotiated deal is better than a total loss of the deal. They won’t say “no” to the new deal.

Offer a range: it is better to say “wait, you’ll pay me only 100 000? At that company, people earn between 110 000 and 130 000” than to say “at that company, people earn 120 000.” You’ll receive a much higher offer when you express a range instead of a fixed number.

If someone cannot pay you what you ask, ask them if they could give you anything else for free. Non-monetary advantages. Also works the other way, where you throw in stuff that are free for you in a package you’re selling and for which you don’t want to decrease the price

Use weird numbers, they feel specific, like if you had made a serious calculation, which people will not wish to negotiate it down. Don’t say “I want to pay 1800$. Say instead “I want to pay 1793.5$”. People will be impressed.

Throw in a free bonus. It is the reciprocity principle. When you give first, you often get something in exchange.

How to negotiate a salary:
a. Insist pleasantly on non-monetary terms (vacation, company car, business class flight). If they can’t give it to you, they’ll increase your salary.
b. Define success terms. It’s important for all parties that what success entails exactly.
c. Ask “what does it take to be successful here?” at the end of the interview. Not only does it make you look good, but you will receive important information. Also, you’ll get a mentor since the person explaing you what it actually takes will want to know if you followed their advice, and will want you to succeed. They will become a mentor to you without knowing so.

Give them the illusion of control by asking calibrated question. “Wow am I supposed to do that” is a very powerful question because

– You can use it to say “no”.
– You can use it to get the other to fix…your own problem.
– Since it is a question, you make them feel like they have control.

These questions are called calibrated questions. They help you orientate the discussion without your counterpart thinking so. You give them the illusion of control.
Always ask “how” and “what” questions.
Never ask “why”.
“What made you do it” is much better than “why did you do it”?
Your question must always be open-ended. Never ask closed-ended question that can be answered with “yes” or “no”.
– What about this is important to you?
– How can I help to make this better for us?
– How would you like me to proceed?
– What is it that brought us into this situation?
– How can we solve this problem?
– What’s the objective? What are we trying to accomplish here?
– How am I supposed to do that?
The implication of these is that you want what the other guy wants and you need his help to do it.

When you close a deal, ask questions to make sure everyone is on board: “how is the rest of the team feeling about this? How are they coming on board?” They may end up killing your deal if they don’t like it, even if they are not negotiating directly.

Deal with liars: ask a lot of “how” questions.

To make sure you get an agreement, ask for confirmation three times. You need to get three “yes”.

If someone says yes but it is a small yes, diffuse the hesitation by telling them “it seems like you hesitate”. Communication is 7-38-55. 7% what is said, 38% tone of voice, 55% body language.

Use your counterpart’s name but not too much, and use yours too. “My name is Aure, what’s the Aure discount?”

Yes means nothing without “how”. Always confirm how the “yes” will be implemented.

Pay close attention to the tone of voice and body language. It will show you if the person is uncomfortable with the deal or not.

Liars never use “I”, but “he, she, it, they” etc because they want to take distance from their lies.

Humor and humanity are the best way to break the ice and remove roadblocks.

In a negotiation, if the counterpart uses “I” a lot, they don’t matter. If they don’t use it themselves, they matter a lot.

There are three types of negotiators: the analyst, which prepares well and thinks during silence. The accommodator, which is very social and will want to offer reciprocity when you offer them a free token. The assertive, which believes time is money, does not like silences and will ruthlessly go to his goal without playing reciprocity.

The black swan rule: don’t treat others how you want to be treated: treat them how they want to be treated.

Never be needy for a deal. Never let the emotions taking the best of you. Always play it cool.

Never look at your counterpart as an enemy. Practice tough love toward him. Look at them like diabetics eating ice-cream. You want the best for them – and that doesn’t include ice-cream.

The person across the table never is the problem. The issue is the problem. Focus on the issue. Not on the person. Never make it personal.

The Ackerman system of ransom: start at 65% of whatever your target price is that you would like to pay. Get to 85%, then 95%, then 100%. Use a random precise number and throw in some non-monetary item (“I will pay you right away”).

Beware of black swans: a black swan is an unknown and unexpected piece of information that may change the whole paradigm of a negotiation. On average, each side is in possession of 3 black swans. To find them, you need to remain extra open.

Keep the end in mind but don’t focus on it. Focus on the next step instead.

Blackswan is leverage. There are three types:
– positive leverage: normal leverage. It could be that your counterpart is only considering you as a provider for a service. That’s leverage you would want to know about.
– negative leverage: based on threats. Avoid it.
– normative leverage: use their norms to advance your cause. No one likes to look like a hypocrite.

We trust people more when they are similar to us. Build rapport with mirroring.
“It was raining this morning?
– Raining this morning…
– Yeah, I don’t like it at all, it’s always raining when I am wearing my favorite suit…
– Your favorite suit?
– Yeah, I got it in Dubai during a work-trip last year…”

Reasons why your counterpart may seem crazy:
– they lack information or have garbage information. If it is the case, your job is to look for what they don’t know and supply the correct info.
– they are constrained.
– they have other interests in mind

How to find out Black Swans
– Get to the table physically
– Listen very attentively

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Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

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