Want to become better at negotiation, but don't know where to start? Kick off with a summary of Chris Voss' best-selling book "Never Split the Difference." Learn the techniques from FBI and how to use them.
What is similar between talking to an armed criminal holding a knife at someone’s throat and talking to a child who’s crying and refusing to go to bed? In both cases, you try to convince a person to do or not do something – in other words, you conduct negotiations. And though it may be surprising, the rules of negotiations are always the same, regardless of the circumstances.
During his 24-year career at the FBI, Chris Voss learned many lessons about negotiations, which he distilled in his book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.” Although he worked mostly with crisis situations like hostage-taking, and although very few people have to deal with Islamists capturing their loved ones, the principles he shares in the book are useful for a much wider audience – because, as Voss puts it, life itself is a negotiation.
To illustrate how these principles work, the author starts each chapter with a real-life story, analyzing the mistakes and highlighting the techniques that lead to the desired result. Below you can read Voss’s “Never Split the Difference” summary chapter by chapter.
Hostage-taking has existed for thousands of years – we can come across some cases in the Old Testament and the history of the Roman Empire. However, hostage negotiating was very primitive as it only meant sending troops to set hostages free using weapons. Things changed only in the XXth century, after several incidents when many hostages were killed. Police forces started organizing groups of experts to conduct negotiations.
In 1979, the Harvard Negotiation Process was founded to develop a theory and practice of negotiation which could be applied not only in hostage-taking situations but in business as well. However, they presented negotiations as a rational process, assuming that the emotional brain is not something of importance. As it appeared later, this was a flawed approach.
Two professors from the University of Chicago, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman argued that humans by their nature are never rational or stable. Their research proved that the human subconscious distorts the way we see the objective world – they discovered more than 150 Cognitive Biases. This is why Kahneman was convinced that trying to conduct negotiations based on logical thinking while ignoring emotional intellect was useless – like trying to make an omelet without first knowing how to crack an egg, as he put it.
Without a deep understanding of human psychology, without the acceptance that we are all crazy, irrational, impulsive, emotionally driven animals, all the raw intelligence and mathematical logic in the world is little help in the fraught, shifting interplay of two people negotiating.
Taking this into account, the FBI started training their agents using psychological systems based on listening and manipulating: all people want to be understood and accepted, so showing empathy and a desire to understand can open the door to a successful negotiation.
In this chapter, Voss tells a story of a bank robbery that happened in 1993. Two masked robbers stormed into a bank, taking three hostages – two female tellers and a security guard. To save them, several law enforcement agencies arrived. Voss’s task was to coach the police department negotiator, Joe.
So while Joe was on the phone, four other people were listening attentively to the conversation, making notes, and comparing them. Voss explains that this was done because people often listen selectively, losing important pieces of information. So relying only on yourself is not a productive way of listening. Besides, very often we get too preoccupied with the voices in our own heads (our thoughts and ideas), which don’t let us hear their counterpart. To avoid this, we need to actually focus on the person we are listening to.
Another thing, continues Voss, is to not make assumptions. The “lead” hostage-taker was trying to convince the police that there were other co-conspirators with him, saying that he was not in charge. It was easy to assume that he would surrender quickly and easily, as he kept saying he was scared. However, it was just an assumption; as Voss says, assumptions need to be taken as hypotheses, not as facts. If the police had shared optimism with the press too early, they would have been humiliated – because the assumption never proved to be right.
Talking to the hostage-taker, they used other techniques to get information out of him. Voss emphasizes that it was very important to speak in the right voice – inflecting it downward, which he calls a late-night FM DJ voice. Another trick was to “slow it down” – not hurrying things up since it could make the robber feel he was not being heard. And, of course, mirroring – repeating back what the robber was saying.
Mirroring is especially effective, says the author, because it lets us develop an instinct of connection that encourages trust. To make it work, it is critically important to make pauses after the phrase you mirror – mirroring needs silence. This way, you let a person talk more and the information he doesn’t want to give out.
Using these techniques, the police were able to rescue the hostages and take the robbers into custody. As we can see, it was all about understanding the robbers’ true motifs and needs. Here Voss makes an important remark:
Wants are easy to talk about… needs imply survival… But neither wants nor needs are where we start; it begins with listening, making it about the other people, validating their emotions, and creating enough trust and safety for a real conversation to begin.
In 1998 three fugitives, who had used automatic weapons in a shootout with a rival gang seven days earlier, were holed up in an apartment. An FBI SWAT team was in the hallway; snipers were on rooftops. The situation was tense. They needed to talk to the fugitives.
The fugitives kept silent, but Voss was talking to them, speaking through the apartment door. He didn’t make orders – instead, he tried to imagine himself in their place. As he says, even though standard negotiating advice is to keep a poker face, it is impossible to separate people from their emotions. Instead of ignoring emotions, it makes sense to identify and then influence them. And what’s even more important – to label them.
Once you’ve spotted a particular emotion, says the author, you should name it aloud since it will encourage your counterpart to be more responsive. Labeling is a very effective de-escalating method because it allows a person to acknowledge his or her feelings. This works really well with anger – this emotion releases stress hormones that disrupt the ability to properly act in a situation. The same concerns the feeling of fear – by labeling someone’s fears, you can generate a feeling of safety.
Voss kept talking to the fugitives, saying he knew they didn’t want to go back to jail, and he knew they were scared to go out because the police could open fire. Paying attention to what the fugitives were feeling and helping them realize it, Voss created an environment of trust: after 6 hours, the fugitives went out.
The relationship between an emotionally intelligent 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 him to go deeper and change his behavior.
At some point in his career, Voss had to work at the crisis hotline. The rule was that a person could make only one call per day, and it could last no more than 20 minutes; however, there were people who wanted to talk much more – energy vampires, as Voss called them.
One of them was Daryl, a guy who was worried about losing a house. In a conversation with him, Voss tried to calm him down, going back and forth and persuading him that his fears were mostly made up. Daryl agreed with what he was saying, at even thanked him for support. After they finished, Voss had an impression that he did a great job. However, his colleague said it was one of the worst calls he’d ever heard.
What was the problem? As Voss understood later, he didn’t let Daryl lead the conversation, making him feel responsible for making conclusions. The conversation finished with Daryl’s “yes” – but in fact, there should have been more “no”.
Voss says that saying “no” is a powerful instrument for several reasons. First of all, it allows us to bring up real problems, instead of falsely agreeing with everything. Secondly, it gives people an opportunity to think more carefully and make correct decisions. Thirdly, by saying “no”, people feel more in control and emotionally comfortable since, in a way, they protect themselves.
“No” is not a sign of failure. It only means that a person wants a little more time. Definitely, the final goal of any negotiation is “yes”, but it should not come in the beginning, underlines Voss. An objection or a refusal actually gives more space for discussion. While niceness, which is often associated with “yes”, can be useless.
“No” … is not use or abuse of power; it is not an act of rejection; it is not a manifestation of stubbornness; it is not the end of the negotiation… The sooner you say “No,” the sooner you’re willing to see options and opportunities that you were blind to previously.
In 2000 the militant Islamic group kidnapped a man called Jeffrey Schilling. The leader of the group who negotiated the price for Schilling’s head – 10 million dollars – was Abu Sabaya, a person with a history of rape, murder, and beheadings.
Sabaya negotiated with Benjie, a military officer. At first, Benjie hated the idea of developing a rapport with the terrorist, as the FBI recommended. However, he changed his viewpoint and did use the recommended techniques – mirroring, labeling, and so on. Sabaya was silent for a minute and then said two words – “That’s right.” Eventually, he released his hostage without any ransom.
Carefully studying the scripts afterward, Voss noticed that Sabaya changed his course after he uttered those two words – “That’s right”. So what was so special about them?
Saying “That’s right”, explains Voss, people show that they have analyzed what you have said and confirmed it out of their own free will. It is a point when they admit they have heard you. He describes what happened as follows:
“That’s right” signaled that negotiations could proceed from deadlock. It broke down a barrier that was impeding progress. It created a realization point with our adversary where he actually agreed on a point without the feeling of having given in.
To make it even more effective, you can also paraphrase the person’s version of the situation after you hear “that’s right” – it would be like a label summary, says Voss. However, we should remember that “that’s right” is different from” “You’re right” – the phrase that often implies "leave us alone."
Back in 2004, on Monday morning, kidnappers captured a famous Haitian political figure and demanded $150 000 as a ransom. Her nephew was terrified and was ready to pay the money. His logic was simple: he would pay the ransom, and they would release his aunt. But negotiations, as Voss points out, are never a linear formula: there always are blind spots and hidden needs.
This could be a political deal, but Haitian criminals used more brutal methods for those. And there was another small detail that made the FBI think this case was not politically motivated: the kidnappers wanted the money by Friday. Listening to them carefully, the FBI realized that they needed money for… partying over the weekend.
Was $150 000 an appropriate sum for partying? Probably not. A reasonable thing to do was to split the difference and offer them $75 000. But was it a good idea?
Compromises in negotiations, says Voss, are often ineffective and disastrous. We compromise not because it is the right thing to do but because it’s easy and guarantees that we will achieve at least something. Compromising, we are usually driven by fear.
A woman wants her husband to wear black shoes with his suit. But her husband doesn’t want to; he prefers brown shoes. So what do they do? They compromise, they meet halfway. And, you guessed it, he wears one black and one brown shoe. Is this the best outcome? No! In fact, that’s t h e worst possible outcome.
To solve this situation, the negotiators used the following techniques:
Due to these tricks, the negotiators were able to bend the kidnapper’s reality, and the man saved his aunt.
This chapter tells another story about the radical Islamist Group Abu Sayyaf. In 2001, they raided a private resort and took 20 hostages. Unfortunately, this case was doomed to failure: in the middle of negotiations, the Philippine army raided the kidnappers, pissing them off. As a result, several hostages got killed and raped. And the group eventually joined Al Qaeda.
An interesting thing about this situation was that while the FBI was trying to save the hostages, there was another person running a parallel negotiation; and, unlike the FBI, he got to speak for one of the hostages – for free. How did he manage that?
Analyzing the situation back home, Voss made the conclusion that a huge mistake the FBI was constantly making was that they were always afraid to ask for something. For example, they were afraid to ask for proof that a hostage was alive because the kidnapper would ask something back; or they were afraid if they asked to talk to the hostage, the answer would be “no”. It was clear that they had to find ways to get what they needed without directly asking.
Voss says that this case was his professional nightmare which, at the same time, helped him look at negotiations from a different angle. So he and his team developed a tool that gives the counterpart an impression that he is in control when in fact, you are the one defining the conversation. This tool is calibrated, or open-ended, questions.
Calibrated questions, says Voss, are like directions. You choose where you want the conversation to go, and let your counterpart lead you both there. There are rules to making a calibrated question. Avoid words like “can”, “is”, “are”, “do” or “does” since these questions can be answered only with “yes” or “no”. The best way to start a question, if you want to get some valuable information, is to use “how” and “what”.
It may seem that you are very limited, having only two words to operate with. However, almost every question can be calibrated with “how” and “what”. For example, “Does this look like something you would like?” can become “How does this look to you?”. Voss further provides some examples of sentences that can be used during negotiations: What about this is important to you? What are we trying to accomplish here? How would you like me to proceed?
Using calibrated questions, we can literally make our counterpart do the job for us – and yet make him believe he has all the control:
You’ve not only implicitly asked for help—triggering goodwill and less defensiveness—but you’ve engineered a situation in which your formerly recalcitrant counterpart is now using his mental and emotional resources to overcome your challenges. It is the first step in your counterpart internalizing your way—and the obstacles in it—as his own.
Another story is about a group of inmates armed with knives who took the warden and some of the staff hostage during a prison siege in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana. They didn’t really want to hurt the hostages, says Voss; they wanted to get out of the siege unharmed, preferably as soon as possible. But they didn’t trust the police.
So negotiators came up with a simple plan: they would let the inmates out one by one, giving the person who was leaving a radio; so once he passed the three perimeters, he could call the other inmates and let them know he didn’t get beaten before getting transferred to jail. However, the plan didn’t work: before the first person climbed in the van, one of the guys noticed the radio and took it away – he didn’t know about the plan. It all failed.
We should always remember that almost always there are other players, says Voss. We need to take into account the people behind the table.
He continues that to guarantee the execution, you should make sure that your counterpart does not lie to you. You can use the 7-38-55 rule which means that 7 percent of your message is based on words, while 38 percent – is on voice tone, and 55 percent – on body language; your task is to see if the words match up with the body language and tone.
There is also the Rule of Three: which requires a person to agree with something three times in one conversation. Since it is very hard to fake the same thing three times, you can spot the lie.
Finally, you can use the Pinocchio effect – according to it, the more a person lies, the more words he says. His nose doesn’t grow like Pinocchio’s, but his speech does.
To conclude, Voss emphasizes that a productive negotiation means paying a lot of attention to details that may not be easily noticed:
Superstar negotiators—real rainmakers—know that a negotiation is a playing field beneath the words, where really getting to a good deal involves detecting and manipulating subtle, nonobvious signals beneath the surface.
Out of all types of negotiation, bargaining is probably the one that causes the most anxiety and aggression. To open this chapter, the author tells a story about him buying a red Toyota. Even though he was not the only person obsessed with the truck, Voss was able to negotiate a price – but it took him a lot of mental energy.
To make the process easier, says Voss, you need to learn to see psychological nuances that direct the way you and your counterpart act. Every person has his own negotiation style that has been formed during his life, impacted by a variety of factors. Recognizing these styles, you can adjust your behavior and make the negotiations more effective.
Now, bargaining is not rocket science, but it’s not simple intuition or mathematics, either. To bargain well, you need to shed your assumptions about the haggling process and learn to recognize the subtle psychological strategies that play vital roles at the bargaining table.
Voss says that there are three types of negotiators, and sheds light on each of them:
These people are methodical and diligent. They can work long hours as long as they know they are moving in the right direction; time is not that important. Analysts are skeptical so you shouldn’t ask them too many questions right in the beginning – they need to understand all the details to answer. They are also sensitive to reciprocity, which means that if they give you something, and don’t get anything back, they just lose trust. If they keep silent, it doesn’t mean they are mad at you – they just want to think. Analysts look cold to other people, so if you belong to this type, you should smile more, says the author.
Accommodators are social and optimistic people whose main goal is to build a good relationships. Communication and information exchange makes them happy, as well as win-win situations. It is very easy to disagree with them, but hard to understand what they really think. They may have some objections, but will not uncover them so as not to ruin the relationship. If you are an accommodator, says Voss, try to not sacrifice your ideas to prevent a conflict.
This type hates to waste time – they think time is money. They care about the number of tasks they can accomplish in a particular time period, and it doesn’t matter to them if the result is perfect or not. They are pretty candid, and their communication style is aggressive. Assertive types see silence as an opportunity to speak more. Being respected is very important to them, as well as being heard – however, they will not listen to you if they are not sure you’ve heard them first. This is why the best techniques to use with them are mirroring, labeling, and summaries. Assertive types don’t try to intentionally sound rude or harsh, but it comes off this way, so if you recognize yourself as Assertive, soften your voice.
What we should remember about the types, says Voss, is that if someone has a different negotiation style than you do, it doesn’t mean they are not “normal” – they are just different normal.
On June 17, 1981, William Griffin left his house and went to a bank, killing his mother and several other people on his way, including police officers reacting to the siren alarm and people just walking by. Getting in the bank and taking hostages, he made the manager call the police and say that “Either you come to the front entrance doors of the bank at three o’clock and have a shoot-out with him in the parking lot … or he’s going to start killing hostages and throwing out bodies.” At exactly 3 o’clock he told one of his hostages to walk to the door and shot her. At this point it was obvious that he didn’t want money or anything – his only purpose was to leave the bank in a body bag.
This behavior was something nobody expected or could even think of; however, it did happen. Before that, nobody killed a hostage on deadline. To describe situations like this – when something that you think is impossible happens, Voss uses the Black Swan metaphor: until the 17th-century people didn’t believe they existed – they knew only about white swans:
Black Swan theory tells us that things happen that were previously thought to be impossible—or never thought of at all. This is not the same as saying that sometimes things happen against one-in-a-million odds, but rather that things never imagined do come to pass.
He explains that in any negotiation there are three types of information. “Known knowns” are things you know for sure, like your counterpart’s name. “Unknown knowns” is something you know that exists but you don’t know if it happens in this particular situation – for example, your counterpart may get sick and leave. And finally, “unknown unknowns” are things we’ve never thought of – like the suicide-by-cop case described above. These are Black Swans.
Conducting negotiations, says Voss, you should be prepared to face Black Swans. However, people by nature are not ready to embrace the unknown because it scares us: we tend to label something unknown as “crazy”.
The principles and practices provided in “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss are a great source of practical knowledge that can be used to handle any negotiation – and in a way that promotes building a good relationship. They can help you learn how to get what you want, reclaiming control of conversations. Try using them, and observe how it works in action.
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