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Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It calls on Chris Voss’ FBI career as their top hostage negotiator. Specifically, it equips readers with the negotiating skills needed to secure business deals. Chris suggests that logic and reason are not generally effective in producing productive negotiations. Instead, the key to success, especially in complicated negotiations, is tactical empathy. This book aims to help people control negotiations with humans, rather than assuming the other party is a robot. 

About Chris Voss

Chris Voss is an American businessman, author, and academic. He started his career with a stint policing the rough streets of Kansas City. Subsequently, he joined the FBI, where he became their leading kidnapping negotiator. This role brought him face-to-face with bank robbers, gang leaders, and terrorists. He is now the CEO of The Black Swan Group Ltd, which offers negotiation training for businesses and individuals. Chris is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a lecturer at the Marshall School of Business at the University of South Carolina.

Chapter 1 – The New Rules

Chris Voss describes negotiation as a process of trying to convince others of our approach to a topic. Therefore, negotiation is a type of communication that requires a specific outcome. Negotiation is built on the premise that humans want to be accepted and understood. Subsequently, being an active listener is an effective way of displaying acceptance and empathy toward the other party in the negotiation. One negotiation technique is to become an intelligent negotiator who focuses on logic and math. In reality, humans are not always convinced by rationality, and we do not generally accept things based on logic alone. Therefore, Chris rejects this approach.

Negotiation has been a topic of study since the 1970s. Still, it was only recently that psychologists such as Kahneman and Tversky identified that we all have a habit of adopting cognitive biases. These cognitive biases lead to irrationality. However, these cognitive biases are relatively common. Therefore, if we can better understand the psychology of human negotiation, we can become more successful negotiators. 

Chapter 2 – Building an Efficient Negotiation Environment

Negotiation as Information Gathering

When negotiating, it is essential to quickly establish a rapport. A rapport relies on effective empathy so that you can gain trust. However, it also relies on having as much information about your counterpart and the situation as possible.

Chris Voss provides an example from his own life of why obtaining as much information as possible is essential. Chris was involved in the negotiation process after a robbery took place in a Manhattan bank in 1993. Three innocent hostages were taken. When negotiating, one of the robbers told the FBI that four people were holding the hostages. In reality, it was just him holding them hostage. Upon rewatching the robbery, Chris noticed that the other robbers were only after the ATM and bailed when he took the hostages. From obtaining this information, Chris could ascertain that this robber was acting alone in this hostage situation. He was lying about the number of people as he wanted to buy time to escape. Chris successfully negotiated this dilemma as he had sufficient information and developed a rapport with the criminal. 

Chris describes negotiations as an act of discovery. Rather than a battle of arguments, he sees negotiation as a way of uncovering as much information as possible. You can start building a rapport by listening to the other party, validating their concerns, building trust, and creating a safety net that allows real conversations to flourish. Through doing this, you are producing an environment that is safe enough for the other individual to talk about what they want. A rapport and trust rely on a slow negotiation process. If you seem to be in a hurry, then the other party will feel like they are not being heard and that you are only negotiating for your benefit. 

According to Chris Voss, there are three types of voices available to negotiators:

  • The late-night FM DJ voice: Basically, you want to keep your voice calm and slow. You shouldn’t use this voice at all times but can use it selectively when you want to create an aura of authority and trust
  • The playful/positive voice: This should be your default voice. It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person. This voice will help encourage the other individual to start opening up
  • The direct/assertive voice: This is the voice you should use most sparingly. This type of voice frequently creates pushback, so you should only use it if there is no alternative


“If you approach a negotiation thinking the other guy thinks like you, you are wrong. That’s not empathy, that’s a projection.” – Chris Voss

Mirroring is an approach that involves repeating what the other person is saying in a curious tone. Specifically, it involves using the three most critical words and using them to frame a leading question. This approach encourages participants to reveal information, as it makes them feel like you are similar to them. You are buying time, but also building a relationship that will help you gather more information to inform your future decisions. Chris provides an example of the effectiveness of mirroring via a study with waiters. Psychologist, Richard Wiseman, found that waiters received, on average, 70 percent more tips when they mirrored. 

Therefore, Chris Voss suggests that you adopt this five-step process with all your negotiations:

  1. Use the late-night FM DJ voice (unless circumstances insist you use one of the other voices)
  2. Start with phrases like ‘I am sorry,’ so that you display openness
  3. Mirror the other participant to build a rapport
  4. Use silence effectively
  5. Repeat

Chapter 3 – Instead of Feeling Their Pain, You Should Label It

Chris Voss also provides a two-step approach to build trust through tactical empathy and labeling. Tactical empathy requires you to listen to and understand the feelings of the other party. You have to simultaneously understand their emotions and listen to their points of view. Combining these two pieces of information throughout the negotiation will help you increase your influence. You can better understand the other individual’s feelings by closely observing the other person’s face, gestures, and tone of voice. Research suggests that observing these emotional cues can make your brain align with theirs. This is called neural resonance. Basically, your brain will mirror their emotions, helping you better understand how they are feeling. 

Subsequently, having gained a better understanding of the other individual’s emotions, you will want to validate their emotion by acknowledging it. This is called labeling. Once you have spotted an emotion, you should label it aloud by observing non-verbal cues and the words they are using. You should always start your ‘label’ of emotions with one of the following phrases:

  • ‘It seems like…’
  • ‘It looks like…’
  • ‘It sounds like…’

Chris emphasizes that labeling negative emotions can diffuse them, while labeling positives can reinforce them. Based on this, labeling can help de-escalate situations. 

Chapter 4 – Don’t Be Scared of Using “No” Tactically

“He who has learned to disagree without being disagreeable has discovered the most valuable secret of negotiation.” – Chris Voss

Chris describes the word ‘no’ as a powerful tool when negotiating. If used effectively, the word ‘no’ can uncover unknown points of contention. This works both ways. You should avoid pushing for a yes. Pushing for a yes will not bring you closer to an agreement and will potentially irritate the other party. Chris describes a ‘no’ as the start of the negotiation, rather than its end. For example, a party responding with ‘no’ provides an excellent opportunity to probe them to clarify precisely what they don’t want. 

Chris introduced three kinds of ‘yes’:

  1. Counterfeit – This is when the party sees a response of yes as the easiest escape route. The party had planned to say no but do not want to deal with the repercussions
  2. Confirmation – This is generally very straightforward. The part is providing a reflexive response to a straightforward question
  3. Commitment – This is the most impactful type of yes. This type of yes will lead to a definite outcome, such as signing a contract. 

You must learn which of these yeses is being used by the other party. Understanding this will help you guide the conversation forward and get to the center of the negotiation.

Chapter 5 – “That’s Right” Can Transform the Conversation

Chapter 5 is one of the shorter chapters in the book. Essentially, this chapter builds on the ideas of mirroring. Summarizing and repeating the other party’s concerns is the most effective way of getting them to agree to a solution. Chris believes that a simple and clear message, such as “That’s right,” can be the most effective way of relaying concerns. Chris sees it as far more impactful in creating negotiation breakthroughs than “Yes.” It is a more robust affirmation of the other party’s concerns. Chris recommends combining this advice with a label and paraphrasing. 

Chapter 6 – Bend Their Reality

“Negotiate in their world. Persuasion is not about how bright or smooth or forceful you are. It’s about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea. So don’t beat them with logic or brute force. Ask them questions that open paths to your goals. It’s not about you.” – Chris Voss

There are several ways that you can bend the other party’s reality. For example, starting with a very low or high offer can change the entirety of the negotiations. Similarly, Chris explains that using particular offers or ones that incorporate odd numbers can influence parties to compromise. Here are some approaches that Chris sees as the most effective in bending the other party towards your preferences:

  • Earn the reputation of being a fair negotiator. Being fair does not mean you are a pushover. Instead, it means you are a shrewd negotiator who understands that both parties have their preferences that need to be accounted for. Additionally, you can increase your chances of looking fair by highlighting to the other party that you have something to lose if the deal falls through
  • Empathy is a fundamental of bending the other party’s reality. Acknowledge the other party’s fears and anchor their emotions in preparation for a loss. You want to inflame the other party’s loss aversion, so they are willing to avoid loss by accepting an offer
  • Being the first to negotiate a price is not the best approach. If you let the other party anchor monetary negotiations, then there is the possibility that you might get lucky. For example, you might have negotiation experiences where the other party’s first offer is higher than your closing figure. In this instance, if you go first, you would agree on a lower price than you could have acquired. Although Chris recommends letting the other party go first, he also highlights the importance of withstanding the first offer. If they drive a hard bargain, then you have to stand firm. Do not let their first offer lead to you being the one who bends their reality
  • You should always establish a range when you are explaining the evidence underlying your point. Therefore, Chris recommends establishing a ballpark figure with credible references to support your claims. For example, instead of saying your work is worth $100,000, you should reference how people in similar roles earn between $120,000 and $140,000. This approach increases your chances of success as you are backing your points with evidence and leaving room for the other party to consider an offer around this range. The other party will be less defensive as it sounds less like you are telling them what to do
  • You should always try and offer the other party things that aren’t important to you, but could be important to them. Doing so will make your offer seem reasonable, even though you are not giving much up. One way to do this is to pivot to non-monetary terms and ask what factors are important for them
  • Interestingly, arbitrary numbers are generally more likely to be accepted. For example, research suggests that numbers ending in 0 tend to feel like placeholders that can be bargained down. In comparison, a less rounded number, such as $47,845, feels like a figure that is more likely to be a result of a thoughtful calculation
  • Finally, Chris recommends surprising the other party with a gift. For example, you can sweeten an incredibly shrewd offer, after a rejection, by giving them a completely unrelated surprise gift

Chapter 7 – Create the Illusion of Control

Chris recommends using calibrated questions to create an illusion of control. For example, negotiators often suggest the other party is in control by using questions that start with “what” or “how.” A calibrated question helps educate the other party on what the problem is rather than causing conflict by telling them what the problem is. 

Chris provides a list of calibrated questions that he uses in almost every negotiation:

  • What about this is important to you?
  • How can I help 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 are we trying to accomplish here?
  • How am I supposed to do that?

These questions will make the other party feel like they are in charge. However, in reality, you are the one in charge.

Chapter 8 – Guarantee Execution

You can guarantee execution in negotiations through observing body language and tone of voice. You have to utilize this nonverbal information to adapt to every element of the negotiation. Your aim in a negotiation is to get both consent and execution. 

Chris provides a variety of tips for using subtle verbal and nonverbal communication, yourself, to understand and modify the mental states of the other party:

  1. Albert Mehrabian created the 7–38–55 Percent Rule. This rule states that only 7 percent of a message is based on the words used, while 38 percent of the message comes from tone of voice, and 55 percent from body language. Pay close attention to the other party’s tone and body language and identify if it matches the literal meaning of the words they are trying to convey. If they don’t align, it is quite evident that they are lying
  2. The Rule of Three involves getting the other party to agree to the same thing three times in the same conversation. This approach reinforces the chances of your offer being accepted in the closing negotiation. Chris recommends labeling or summarizing what they said during the first agreement. This should encourage them to agree for a second time. Then, for the third instance, you could use a calibrated question
  3. A Harvard Business School study by professor Deepak Malhotra and his colleagues found that, on average, liars use more words than those telling the truth. They also tend to use more third-person pronouns
  4. People often get tired of hearing their name. Switch tracks and use your name instead. This creates a sense of “forced empathy” and makes the other party see you as human

Chapter 9 – Bargain Hard

“Conflict brings out truth, creativity, and resolution.” – Chris Voss

Negotiators use different styles to bargain: they can be analytical, accommodating, or even assertive. Progressive offers can make each style more successful.

Suppose the other party is driving a hard bargain. In that case, you should aim to move the conversation away from monetary issues. For example, Chris encourages readers to use an encouraging voice and ask the other party to put prices to the side for a moment. Suggest the other party considers other options that could make this a good deal for both of you. 

When bargaining, you always want to prevent confrontation. Collaboration is where you can obtain real bargains. Chris explains that using first-person pronouns (e.g., I) is an excellent way of preventing confrontation. Using this type of pronoun brings the attention back onto you. You do not want to beg or seem too apologetic during these negotiations, as the issue is the unsolved deal rather than you. However, taking some pressure off the negotiations by bringing the attention back to you can help encourage the negotiations. 

Chris speaks in detail about the Ackerman Model. The Ackerman Model is a method that aims to maximize your returns from counteroffers. It is a six-step process that should be followed in this order:

  1. Set your target price
  2. Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target price
  3. Calculate your three raises in prices. These prices should decrease in increments e.g., 85, 95, and then 100%
  4. Use your empathy and the different ways of saying no to encourage negotiations. This encouragement should help the other individual provide a counteroffer, which you should consider before increasing your offer
  5. When calculating the final amount you are willing to pay, you should use precise and arbitrary numbers rather than ones that are rounded (as spoken about earlier)
  6. Throw in a non-monetary item along with your final offer. This non-monetary item should ideally be something that you don’t particularly want. This non-monetary item will also suggest to the other party that you are at your limit

Concluding Point – Do Not Split the Difference

You should never be so eager to solve a conflict that you accept a result that is inconvenient for you. Making a compromise or accepting a bad deal is almost always a mistake. Chris calls this splitting the difference. Compromising will not always bring an effective outcome. For example, the other party in a negotiation may provide an offer. Upon compromising, they may suggest you make a further compromise. For example, a kidnapper holding somebody may hold a hostage and ask for ransom money. However, although this would suggest that money is their motivating factor, there is nothing to say that they won’t also kill this individual as a message after obtaining the money. Therefore, Chris suggests that you never split the difference.

One way to avoid splitting the difference is to take your time. The other individual might start setting deadlines, but your job is to collect as much information as possible regarding your negotiations. Do not make rushed decisions. Chris explains that most deadlines are quite flexible and have just been chosen randomly. The author provides an example of flexible deadlines from his time working for the FBI. The wife of a Haitian police officer was abducted, and the kidnappers were demanding money. However, during the following weeks of negotiation, the author noticed an interesting pattern. The kidnappers would insist on receiving ransom money on workdays. Then, as the weekend approached, they would stop their requests and lay low. These actions led Chris to realize that the kidnappers had a partying habit, and that’s why they needed the money. Once he understood this, the author also realized that the deadlines were flexible and that he could negotiate a much lower price with them. As with most negotiations, information, patience, and time were of the essence to see a successful outcome.

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