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MAY, 2019

Never Split The Difference – Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz 

What can we learn from the top FBI negotiator who deals in lives not dollars?


The following are my notes on ‘Never Split The Difference‘. What I record is a reflection of my own interests as much as the content of the book.

I have classified it as ‘public transport appropriate‘ i.e. it can be read in a busy environment with the odd interruption and you will be able to pick up where you left off with ease.

Who is the author?

Christopher Voss is an American businessman, author and professor. Former FBI hostage negotiator, he worked on more than 150 international hostage cases, retiring in 2007. He later became an adjunct Professor at Georgetown University‘s McDonough School of Business and a lecturer at the University of Southern California‘s Marshall School of Business.

Review: Highly readable, Never Split The Difference takes the classic narrative approach to business books: each chapter tells at least one story, which is then analysed to help the author make their point. 

Voss’ wisdom comes from his vast experience of negotiations which he uses to inform his model. This bottom-up approach has a grit and texture that gives it greater applicability than many academic works. Given he teaches at universities, including Harvard, he also gets the opportunity to test his approach in academic settings. This all makes for a pretty convincing body of work.  

The stories Voss tells often revolve around true life and death events which means the reader’s attention is easily retained. However, this dramatic scenario raises questions as to how useful Voss is to the world of business.

Voss is all about winning, it’s everything to him, afterall it is life and death in a hostage negotiation. However, in the world of business we usually, hopefully deal in other currencies than lives and as a result many negotiations end-up in a compromise, the middle ground. 

Voss fails to recognise that in many negotiations there is a fallback position. Buyers or investors nearly always have substitutes they can select. The mother of a kidnapped child may have other children but they won’t view them as a substitute. 

By the end of Never Split The Difference – Negotiating As Though Your Life Depended On It, I came to the conclusion that the book is a little like a Hollywood blockbuster movie. There is a nourishing narrative with elements of truth to it however, real life just isn’t all that dramatic or interesting. The same goes for negotiation.  



Have you ever tried to devise a win-win solution with someone who thinks they’re the messiah?

Welcome to Chris Voss’ world of negotiation, where splitting the difference is wrong and why no deal is better than a bad deal. As Voss puts it:

“Okay, you’ve taken four hostages. Let’s split the difference – give me two and we’ll call it a day.”

This does not work in the world of hostage negotiation.

Traditionally negotiation theory expounds a cold, solid, rationale argument. But the reality in the field is negotiation tends to be intense, dynamic, emotional and uncertain.

Voss is obsessed with the winning outcome only.

Be a Mirror

Mirroring works magic: it is the art of insinuating familiarity, which facilitates bonding. Encouraging your counterparts to reveal their strategy.

People are more likely to agree with you once they feel they have been listened to, understood. (I think it’s worth noting what Kathyrn Schulz says about people’s propensity to change their mind once they understand they could be wrong: Being Wrong – Adventures in the Margin of Error).

Voss claims Oprah Winfrey is a fantastic negotiator. She manages to persuade people to talk and keep talking about themselves in front of millions of people.

To quiet the voice inside you, make your sole and all encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say. Put a smile on your face.

Choose when to deploy one of three appropriate voice tones:

  • Late night DJ voice, downward intonations to make statements.
  • Playful positive voice, easy going and good natured, light and encouraging, should be your default voice.
  • Direct and assertive voice, use rarely.


Don’t Feel their pain, Label it

The relationship between the negotiator and their counterpart is essentially therapeutic. It duplicates that of a psychotherapist with a patient. The psychotherapist pokes and prods to understand his patient’s problems, and then turns the responses back onto the patient to get her to go deeper and change her behaviour. That’s exactly what good negotiators do.

Three fugitives holed-up in Harlem, after six hours of radio silence they all walked out. All three gave the same reason for their unannounced, sudden surrender “We didn’t want to get caught or get shot but, you calmed us down. We finally believed you wouldn’t go away so we just came out”.

The Holy Trinity: words, tone, body language – or words, music and dance.

Label people’s emotions, they don’t notice:

It seems like…

It sounds like…

It looks like…

Avoid the use of ‘I’ because it sounds self-centred.

If they disagree with the label, reverse by saying “I didn’t say that was what it was. I just said it seemed like that”.

Once you’ve labeled their emotion be silent.

Example: Don’t follow your “It seems like” question with a specific question, just be silent.  Don’t follow-up “It seems like you like the way that shirt looks” with “Where did you get it?” Be silent.


Two Levels Of Emotions

People have emotions on two levels:

  1. Present: What we sense, see, hear, touch etc.
  2. Underlying: What motivates that behaviour


Taking the Sting Out

Open your negotiation with a statement of all the negatives.  Defense lawyers do this with their  opening statement.  Ask ‘What else do you feel is important you’d like to add to this?’

Imagine yourself in your counterpart’s situation.  Once they know you’re listening they’re more likely to tell you something you can use.

Reasons why counterpart won’t make a deal with you are usually more powerful than the reasons they will.  Therefore, clear the barriers first.  Denying barriers or negative influences gives them credence, get them into the open.

Use labeling to diffuse your counterparts fears, create a sense of safety.

List the worst thing the other party can say about you before the other person can – performing an accusation audit in advance prepares you to head off negative dynamics before they take route.

People want to be appreciated and understood. 


Beware “Yes” Master “No”

A trap into which many people fall is to take others on their word.

“No’s” are just a gateway to “Yes”. They give people time to consider and pivot.

“No” is the start of the negotiation not the end of it. “No” is a statement of perception far more than a statement of fact. It seldom means “I have considered all the facts and made a rational choice”. Instead “No” is often a a decision frequently temporary, to maintain the status quo. Change is scary, and “No” provides a little protection from that scariness.

People need to feel in control.

And “No” gives you time to elaborate or pivot in order to convince your counterpart that the change you’re proposing is more advantageous than the status quo.

“No” has amazing powers to bring down the barriers and allow for beneficial communication.

No means one of:

  • I am not yet ready to agree;
  • You are making me feel uncomfortable
  • I do not understand
  • I don’t think I can afford it
  • I want something else
  • I need more information; or
  • I want to talk it over with someone else.

Then, after pausing ask solution based questions or simply label their effect.

  • “What about this doesn’t work for you?”
  • “What would you need to make it work?”
  • “It seems like there’s something here that bothers you.”

People have a need to say “No”. So don’t just hope to hear it at some point; get them to say it early.

What does “Yes” mean?

There’s three kinds of “Yes”:

  • Counterfeit – want to say “No” but feels easier escape route to say “Yes”
  • Confirmation – innocent reflexive response to a black and white question, simple affirmation with no promise of action
  • Commitment – what you want, true agreement that leads to action

Instead of getting inside with logic or feigned smiles we get there by asking for “No”. It gives the speaker a feeling of control and safety “No” is a safe haven that starts conversations before getting to the final “Yes” of commitment. An early “Yes” is often a counterfeit dodge.

Think of a telemarketer who calls you  “Do you enjoy a nice glass of water?” You say “Yes” but you want to scream “No”.

You use a question that prompts a “No” answer and your counter-party feels in control because they turned you down. If trying to sell something don’t ask “Have you got a few minutes to talk?” Ask “Is now a bad time to talk?” If you get “Yes, it’s a bad time” then when is a good time to talk or you get “No, it’s not” in which case you get total focus.

“No” is reaffirmation of autonomy. It opens the discussion up. Change the script from:

“Are you Joe Bloggs?”


“Do you believe gas prices are too high?”


“Do you believe democrats are part of the problem?”


“Do you think we need change in November?”


“Great, please give to XYZ fund.”


When changed to the below it got 23% more donations:

“Is this Joe Bloggs?”


“Do you feel if things stay as they are US’s best days are ahead of it?”


“Are you going to put up with the Democrats and do nothing about it?”

“No, I’m going to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

“Great, if you don’t want that to happen please give to XYZ fund.”


You can get to “No” by mislabeling the counter-party’s emotion: “So it seems like you wish to leave your job.” Answer: “No. That’s not it. This is the reason….”


Talk about what they don’t want “Lets talk about what you’d say ‘No’ to”

For email use this line: “Have you given up on this project”

“Yes” is the final goal of a negotiation but, don’t aim for it as the start. Negotiate in their world, let them think the solution is their idea.


Trigger The Two Words That Immediately Transform Any Negotiation

Aim is to hear the words ‘That’s right’. ‘That’s right’ is equal to “You understand me”.

 “When your adversaries say ‘That’s right’ they feel they have assessed what you have said and pronounced it as correct of their own free will. They embrace it.”

‘Sleeping in the same bed but dreaming different dreams’, an old Chinese saying, intimacy in partnership without the communication to sustain it. 

Summarise by labeling and paraphrasing . Identify, re-articulate, and emotionally affirm ‘the world according to….


Bend Their Reality

We’re always taught to look for the win-win solution, to accommodate, to be reasonable.

Deadlines trigger fear of loss, they’re the bogeyman of negotiation. They’re almost never ironclad.


“Early on in a negotiation, I say, ‘I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly at all times. So please stop me at any time if you feel I’m being unfair, and we’ll address it.'”

Look at the other parties point of view by asking “We sell this so that….. ‘ What comes after is the key emotional driver.

Use a range when talking money – it tends to get you a better deal. (Columbia Business School experiment).

Avoid talking about numbers in isolation – this leads to bargaining, a series of rigid positions defined by emotional views of fairness and pride. 

Create the Illusion of Control

Instead of saying ‘You can’t leave’, turn it into a question to remove the hostility ‘What do you hope to achieve by going?’


Calibrate Your Questions

‘It seems’ is soft and allows interpretation by your counterpart. They offer no target for attack like statements do. They can educate the counterpart on the problem rather than telling them what the problem is.

Avoid: can, are, do, does – they lead to closed answers. Instead use Kipling’s Six Wise Men (What, Who, How, Where, When, Why).

Reduce down to:

  • What
  • How
  • Why

And leave ‘Why’ on the back burner as it’s hot button. Focus on what and how.

Calibrate questions to point your counter-party toward solving your problem. This will expend their energy on devising a solution.

Bite your tongue. When you’re attacked in a negotiation, pause ad avoid angry, emotional reactions. Instead, ask your counter-party calibrated questions.


Guarantee Execution

Don’t respond with ‘No’ but, ‘How’. ‘How can we raise that much?’ ‘How am I supposed to do that?’

It also drives the other party to think about how a deal can be implemented. This will convince your counter-party the idea is their idea.

‘How will we know we’re off track?’ ‘How will we address things if we go off track?’

When they answer you summarise their answer until you hear those two powerful words ‘That’s right’. Then they’ve brought in.

Identify decision makers by asking ‘How does that affect everybody else?’ ‘How on board is the rest of your team?’ ‘How do we make sure we deliver the right material to the rest of the team?’

How tell if ‘Yes’ is counterfeit? Use the three tests:

  1. Use calibrated questions
  2. Summarise
  3. Label

Pronouns: If you here a lot of ‘I’ and ‘my’, the decision maker sits elsewhere. ‘We’, ‘they’, ‘them’ more likely dealing directly with savvy decision maker keeping his options open.


Bargain Hard

There’s three types of negotiator:

Analyst: methodical and diligent, not in a big rush. Minimises mistakes. Lives by the motto ‘It takes as long as it takes to get it right.’ Often works on their own and rarely show semotion. They’re reserved problem solvers.

Accommodator: Spend time building relationships. As long as there’s a free flowing exchange of information time is being well spent. They love the win-win. They are most likely to build rapport. Even if they can’t reach agreement they look to remain friends with their counterpart.

Assertive: Believe time is money, every wasted minute is a wasted dollar. Their self-image is linked to how many things can get accomplished in a period of time. For them getting the job done is more important than getting it right. They’re fiery people who love winning above all else, often at the expense of others. Most of all the assertive want to be the most heard.

Of the three the Accommodator is thought to be the most successful negotiator.