Book Review – Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz

Regular readers will be aware that one of my favourite books on negotiating is Negotiation for leaders” by Simon Horton which I reviewed in 2016 . But this book: “Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it” by Chris Voss – a former FBI hostage negotiator – is pretty good too. It was also published in 2016 and is an enthralling read with insights into real life and death scenarios with kidnappers, hostages and terrorists. But it also contains lots of great – and often simple – ideas to improve your negotiating skills drawing on research from psychologists and Harvard’s negotiation experts. As a psychologist, I like that his approach puts emotions centre stage in the negotiation process.

1. The new rules

This chapter sets the scene and provides glimpses of some of the key ideas that are explored in the book: The value of open-ended questions (which he calls calibrated questions) that buy you time, repetition of questions and one of the most valuable questions (“How am I supposed to do that?”).

He takes a swipe at old school negotiation by warning against wholly rational approaches. He practically dismisses ideas such as BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) and ZOPA (Zone of Possible Agreement). He positions negotiation as a battle between heart and mind.

He looks at Fisher and Ury’s rules to systematise negotiation as a problem-solving approach to get to a mutually beneficial deal – and how they don’t work with terrorists:

  1. Separate the person from the problem
  2. Ignore people’s position and focus on their interests
  3. Work co-operatively to achieve win:win
  4. Establish mutually-agreed standards for the evaluation of possible solutions

He mentions the impact of work by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in behavioural economics, cognitive biases and the framing effect (people choose different things depending on how things are presented). And puts emotions centre stage: “Emotions and emotional intelligence would have to be central to effective negotiations, not things to be overcome”.

His steps are simple: calm people, establish rapport, gain trust, elicit verbalisation of needs and persuade. His premise is that people want to be understood and accepted. Tactical empathy is one solution.

He argues that life is negotiation. Negotiation is for information gathering and behaviour influencing. It is communication with results in a relationship-affirming way. He modestly says negotiation is “applied people smarts”.

He provides a peep at the key tools: active listening to slow things down, empathy with your counterpart’s perspective, labelling, defusing negative dynamics, accusation audit (voicing your counterpart’s concerns about you), UPR (Universal Positive Regard from Humanist psychology), acknowledging people’s right to choose, bending reality, framing and calibrated questions, Non-Verbal Communication (NVC) and finding the 3 – 4 pieces of information that change everything (his Black Swans).

2. Be a mirror (how to quickly establish rapport)

Assumptions blind you – they “muck up” your perceptual windows on the world. The author suggests that you explore your assumptions and develop multiple hypotheses for what might be happening.

A goal at the outset of the negotiation is to extract and observe as much information as possible. The author suggests that the less important someone makes him or herself to be (less use of me/I), the more important the person probably is (and vice/versa).

He mentions psychologist George A Miller who suggested that we can process only about seven pieces of information in our conscious minds at any given moment. So he advises having extra sets of ears listen to all interactions to help pick up clues or “tells”.

There’s advice to slow things down as there is research to show that the passage of time is one of the most important tools for a negotiator.

Referencing material on non-verbal communication the author reminds us that it is not so much what you say but how you say it. He moderates his voice so it is deep, soft, slow and reassuring (his late night DJ voice). Talking slowly and clearly conveys “I am in control”. Two other voice tones for negotiators are positive/playful voice and direct/assertive voice. He notes that when people are in a positive frame of mind, they think more quickly and are more likely to collaborate and problem solve.

Mirroring behaviour – also called isopraxism – is essentially imitation. This copying of each other probably originates in the need to comfort each other. People fear difference and are drawn to similarity – and this is why mirroring is so powerful in building rapport. He also suggests mirroring or repeating the last three words that the other person speaks. Surprisingly, he mentions Oprah Winfrey as an exemplar of good negotiation.

3. Don’t feel their pain, label it (create trust with tactical empathy)

He notes that historically emotions are ignored in negotiation. But he advises you to identify and influence emotions. In this regard, the role of the negotiator duplicates that of a psychotherapist with a patient.

So the advice is to watch and listen. He talks about tactical empathy – to hear what is behind the feelings. Achieve neural resonance – by imagining you are the other person. He suggests verbalising the predictable emotions of the situation. And validating someone’s emotions by acknowledging them.

He says that applying rational words to a fear disrupts its raw intensity. Phrases he recommends include; “It seems like”, “It sounds like”, “It looks like”. He notes the power of silence in encouraging the other party to continue talking.

He advises you to neutralise the negative and reinforce the positive. Labelling negative emotions helps to de-escalate situations as if they are spoken they don’t need to be acted out.  Another useful phrase is to admit when you make a mistake (e.g. “Look, I’m an idiot”) to fix things.

He says that the best way to deal with negative emotions is to observe them without reaction or judgement. Then label each negative feeling and replace it with a positive, compassionate and solution-based thought. This is the classic technique of reframing

He says you must “clear the road before advertising the destination”. Your goal at this stage is to have the other party say “You understand me”. By conducting an accusation audit (listing all the things that the other party could accuse you of) and saying these things yourself takes the sting out. And inviting the other side to add any other things also helps to defuse tough situations.

4. Beware “yes”, master “no” (generate momentum and reveal the real stakes)

He contradicts advice that you need to get to “Yes” quickly by arguing that No” starts the negotiation (from Jim Camp’s book “Start with no”). No is often a decision, frequently temporary, to maintain the status quo.

He explains that we all need autonomy and to feel in control. Again, he urges us to reframe and hear “No” as something else – for example: “I don’t understand”, “I’m not ready to agree”, “You are making me feel uncomfortable”, “I want something else”. I thought this was a great technique for objection handling in selling. Especially: “What about this doesn’t work for you?” or “What don’t you want?”

Using empathy enables you to persuade in their world. He notes three kinds of yes – counterfeit, confirmation and commitment.

I liked (and have often used) his email tip to ask “Have you given up on this project?”. The most likely response is a “No” and insight into what’s causing the delay or progress.

5. Trigger the two words that immediately transform any negotiation (gain permission to persuade)

The two words you need to get the other person to say is “That’s right (not “You’re right”)

He mentions the Behavioural Change Stairway (BCSM) five stages: active listening, empathy, rapport, influence and behaviour change. He also talks about the need for UPR (Universal Positive Regard – one the three tenets of Carl Rogers and Humanist psychology). This is so you can figure out how your adversary arrived at his or her position.

There’s also a quick run through of the active listening arsenal: effective pauses, minimal encouragement (“yes”, “ok”, “I see”), mirroring, labelling, paraphrasing and summarising. (A short video on active listening)

6. Bend their reality

The author says that compromise often leads to a bad deal and a key theme is that no deal is better than a bad deal. He argues that we compromise because it is easy and it saves face. Most people in a negotiation are driven by fear or the desire to avoid pain rather than driven by their actual goals.

He says to make deadlines your ally as time is one of the most crucial variables in any negotiation. He asks what it is about a deadline that causes pressure and anxiety. And says that deadlines are often arbitrary, almost always flexible and hardly ever trigger the consequences we think. He refers to Herb Cohen’s book “You can negotiate anything”. Hiding your deadlines dramatically increases the risk of an impasse. Researcher Moore discovered that when negotiators tell their counterparts about their deadline, they get better deals.

Emotion regulating insular cortex reflects the degree of unfairness in social interactions. The negative emotional value of unfairness outweighs the positive rational value of the money. Being accused of being unfair makes you feel defensive and discomfort. He advises you to urge the other side to stop you and raise any situations where they feel things are unfair.

There’s mention on Prospect Theory – how people choose between options that involve risk. People are drawn to sure things over probabilities as a result of the certainty effect. And loss aversion means we want to avoid losing something more than we might gain with something else. To get leverage you have to persuade them that they have something concrete to lose if the deal falls through. He offers the following steps:

  1. Anchor their emotions
  2. Let the other guy go first – most of the time (anchoring effect – we make adjustments from our first reference point)
  3. Establish a range – this proved more effective in salary negotiations
  4. Pivot to non-monetary terms – offer things important to them but are not important to you
  5. When you do talk numbers, use odd ones
  6. Surprise with a gift (unexpected conciliarity gestures to trigger reciprocity)

Ask the question “How can I come up with that kind of money?”

There’s great advice using this approach on how to negotiate a better salary: Be pleasant, persist on non-salary terms, ask about success terms, spark their interest in your success and gain an unofficial mentor (“What does it take to be successful here?”). He notes that if someone gives you guidance they will watch to see if you follow their advice. Odd numbers give the impression of thoughtful calculation.

7. Create the illusion of control (calibrate questions to transform conflict into collaboration)

He reframes ideas on the negotiation process – recognising the importance of interpersonal dynamics where he says: “Negotiation as coaching, not overcoming; co-opting not defeating”. Recognise the need to involve your counterpart in doing the work for you and suggest solutions. This gives them the illusion of control. The idea of calibrated (open-ended) questions is used here. It removes aggression by acknowledging the other party. “What do you hope to achieve by…” a good example.

He indicates that a change in negotiators by the other side almost always signals that they mean to take a harder line.

Avoid a tit-for-tat mentality where if you ask for something you then owe the other side something. So this requires you to find ways to obtain what you want without asking for it. “How do I know the person is alive?” often achieves the same outcome as “May I speak to the hostage?”.

He cites Kevin Dutton who talks about unbelief – active resistance to what the other side is saying. The strong question “How am I supposed to do that?” educates your counterpart on what the problem is rather than causing conflict by telling them. Calibrated questions use the journalist’s tool of who, what, when, where and how (not Why as it can provoke defensiveness).

Some great examples of calibrated questions included are:

  • “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 you trying to accomplish here?”

You need to acknowledge their ideas openly. You also need self-control and emotional regulation. When you are verbally assaulted, do not counter-attack.  He notes that Japanese people use translators as it gives them time to frame their response. If people don’t feel in control they adopt a hostage mentality and react to their lack of power by being defensive or lashing out. He mentioned the power of apologies (e.g. “I’m sorry – that was a bit harsh”).

8. Guarantee execution (Spot the liars and ensure follow through from everyone else)

Negotiators have to gain both consent and execution. He suggests you guarantee execution using the rule of three. “Yes” is nothing without “How”.

He suggests answering every demand with a question. This always buys more time. And it puts pressure on your counterpart to come up with answer and to contemplate your problems when making their demands. He calls this forced empathy. And there’s a good example using debt recovery.

He says to be aware of behind the table or “Level II” players – parties not directly involved but who can help implement agreements they like and block ones they don’t. A bit like influencers in the DMU in sales situations (short video on DMUs). Questions to uncover these people include: “How does this affect everybody else?” and “How on board is the rest of your team?”.

There are subtle communication hints such as using “not lose” rather than “keep”. He returns to the

7-38-55 rule (Albert Mehrabian’s rule that the message is based on 7% words, 38% voice and 55% visuals of body language and face). And reminds us to listen and reflect back hesitations.

Three kinds of “Yes” are commitment, confirmation and counterfeit. And he says you need the person to agree to the same things three times in a conversation.

In a section called the Pinocchio effect he refers to Harvard Business School research that found, on average, liars use more words than truth tellers and use far more third person pronouns. They start talking about “him, her, it, they and their” rather than “I” to put some distance between themselves and the lie. The number of words grew with the lie – like Pinocchio’s nose.

As well as using your counterpart’s name in communications – using your own name creates the dynamic of forced empathy as it humanises you.

One of my favourite techniques is getting counterparts to bid against themselves. Decline the offer using “How” questions. Suggested phrases include: “Your offer is very generous, I’m sorry it just doesn’t work for me” or “I’m sorry I just can’t do that”.

The art of closing a deal is staying focused to the very end.

9. Bargain hard (how to get your price)

Silence is powerful as it helps to “uncover the rip tide” of underlying issues.

While accepting that we might have different styles, there’s a useful section on recognising your main negotiating style and that of others and adjusting accordingly. He says that we tend to think others have the same style as ourselves. I mapped my personality model of cats, dogs and bears (see video explainer on personalities) onto his types:

Analyst (Cat) Accommodate (Dog) Assertive (Bear)
Methodical and diligent Time spent building the relationship Believes time is money
Not in a big rush Want to remain friends – sociable and friendly Self-image linked to how much they can accomplish in a period of time
Time = preparation Time = relationship Time = money
Self-image linked to minimising mistakes Approach to preparation can be lacking Getting their solution perfect isn’t as important as getting it done
Works alone Silence is anger Aggressive communications style
Rarely shows emotion   Focus on what they have to say
Hyper-sensitive to reciprocity   Mirror them
Silence is time to think   Give them an inch and they take a mile

There’s an interesting research report that 65% of attorneys from two major US cities used a co-operative style while only 24% were truly assertive. Lawyers were graded for effectiveness and more than 75% of the effective group came from the cooperative types with only 12% in assertive style.

The Black Swan rule is don’t treat others the way you want to be treated, but the way they need to be treated. There’s a great quote by Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. He suggests putting price aside for a moment to talk about what would make a good deal. This shakes things up and gets your counterpart out of their rigid mindset.

Researchers at INSEAD found that expressions of anger increase a negotiators’ advantages and increases the final take but false expressions of anger backfire. He advocates the use of strategic umbrage with phrases such as: “I don’t see how that could ever work”

He runs through an example of Ackerman bargaining (offer – counter offer method) steps:

  1. Set you target price (your goal)
  2. Set your first offer at 65% of target price
  3. Calculate three raises of decreasing increments: 85, 95 and 100
  4. Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No”
  5. When calculating the final amount use precise, non-round numbers
  6. On your final number throw in a non-monetary item to show you are at your limit

The shock of an extreme anchor will induce a fight or flight reaction in all but the most experienced negotiators. The norm of reciprocity will inspire your counterpart to make a concession. This method supports the counter party’s self-esteem. Researchers found that people getting concessions often feel better about the bargaining process than those who are give a single firm offer.

10. Find the black swan (reveal the unknown unknowns)

Black swans refer to the hidden and unexpected pieces of information (unknown unknowns). He mentions the weakness of predictions based on previous experience.

He suggests that in every negotiation, each side is in possession of at least three Black Swans – three pieces of information that, were they to be discovered by the other side, would change everything. Intuitive and nuanced way of listening can help detect black swans. He argues that conventional questions and research techniques are designed to confirm known knowns and reduce uncertainty. They don’t dig into unknowns.

Techniques to uncover black swans include: voicing your observations, noting small pauses and asking yourself why they are communicating each piece of information.

He then goes on to talk about three types of leverage (i.e. the ability to inflict loss and withhold gain):

  • Positive (provide or withhold things)
  • Negative (make them suffer) and
  • Normative (using the other party’s norms and standards to show inconsistencies)

He argues that if you know their religion – or their deeply held beliefs – this shows you how they see the world and their reason for being. And this provides ideas to persuade. He mentions the “Paradox of power” – the harder we push the more likely we are to be met with resistance. So you need to position your demands within their worldview. Their religion has authority over them.

He suggests watching for things that don’t make sense. Sometimes people label others as crazy but their behaviour may be strange because:

  1. They are ill informed
  2. They are constrained
  3. They have other interests

He suggests getting face time with counterparts so that you can observe unguarded moments. It’s like watching for weak signals.

He ends by suggesting that you overcome fear of conflict by encouraging you to navigate it with empathy. He argues his approach is an “information-obsessed, empathic search for the best possible deal”. And he ends on the need to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

The Appendix contacts a three page negotiation planner which brings all the ideas in the book together.

My conclusion

It’s a great book exploring fascinating – albeit rare – situations of hostage negotiators. And it certainly has an international flavour. Sometimes those stories are so incredible you kind of lose perspective on how to apply the ideas to simple business or personal negotiations. Yet the key lessons at the end of each chapter provide a helpful summary. He draws on a wide range of sources – from business school to psychology and behavioural science.

There are nuggets of advice but you sometimes have to dig for them – and at other times they appear in multiple places. Which is good for reinforcement but a bit repetitive at times. He’s honest enough to include some of his negotiation failures – and how it led to insights on how to improve. I did find it a tiny bit irritating that he uses the male pronoun throughout.