Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss (former FBI hostage negotiator) and Tahl Raz (journalist and author) is the book that promises to prepare you for any negotiation situation ranging from negotiating a salary to buying a car.
The purpose of this blog post is to provide you with a good understanding of the general ideas presented in the book as well as allow you to reflect on your own takeaways if you have already read the book.
This post is not a chapter-by-chapter book summary. What I'm trying to do with this summary is to provide a summary of the main author Chris Voss's ideas instead of just listing the key points of each chapter. If you are looking for a chapter-by-chapter summary, you can find one here. There is also an official study guide available as a PDF here.
Let's start by defining what does a great negotiator look like. A great negotiator is a person who can...
- walk away from a bad deal
- make their counterpart feel at ease
- understand what their counterpart wants
- understand what their counterpart doesn't want
- turn wants into leverage and action
- apply the right dealmaking tactics
In the next chapter Walk away from bad deals, we will discuss walking away from a bad deal. Chapters Focus on how you are and Build rapport are about how to make your counterpart feel at ease. Chapters Listen and observe your counterpart, Acknowledge barriers and objections, and Turn agreement into action deal with understanding your counterpart's wants and needs and turning them into leverage and action. Finally, chapters Learn to negotiate about money, Adjust your tactics for each counterpart, and Prepare for every negotiation situation are about applying the right tactics for the right situations.
While what you say and do are a critical part of any negotiation and make up most of the advice in Never Split the Difference, it's how you are that's the easiest thing to adjust and the most immediately effective negotiation tactic.
You and everyone else—including your counterpart—are partly driven by the need to feel safe, secure, and in control. If you want to make your counterpart feel at ease and have a more open and collaborative attitude, you have to help them achieve those needs. If your counterpart won't feel safe, secure, or in control, you will risk triggering a destructive fight-or-flight response in them.
Here is how you make your counterpart feel at ease:
- Smile. People are more likely to collaborate—and less likely to fight and resist—when they are in a positive frame of mind.
- Slow it down. Allow your counterpart to feel heard and in control by not going too fast or hurrying conversations.
- Give space. You cannot convince someone they are safe, secure, or in control by arguing them into a corner. Our primitive brain is much more sensitive to fear and danger than to logic.
As a negotiator, there are three different voice tones that you can use with your counterpart: the positive/playful voice, the late-night FM DJ voice, and the assertive voice.
The positive/playful voice should be the tone you use most of the time in negotiations. A positive voice is encouraging and friendly. The key is to relax and smile—even when talking on the phone.
When something is not up for discussion or you need to take more control, use the late-night FM DJ voice. Talk slowly and calmly. Inflect your voice in a downward way; upward inflection invites your counterpart to chime in with their opinion (this is not what you want when using the late-night FM DJ voice).
The assertive voice is to be used only in rare circumstances. Most of the time, using an assertive voice will signal dominance which in turn will result in push back—and not collaboration—from your counterpart.
Your mantra in negotiation situations should be "no deal is better than a bad deal."
Bad deals are deals where you end up being on the wrong side of a "win-lose" situation but they can also include compromises and "win-win" situations where neither side is actually satisfied with the final agreement.
In order to internalize the "no deal is better than a bad deal" mantra, you need to get comfortable with conflict and focus on goals instead of loss avoidance:
- Be patient and focus on conducting a negotiation right instead of rushing the process
- Most people are drived by fear of loss. You need to focus on goals instead.
- When offered a compromise, ignore the urge to give up or to just get along
- Ignore the urge to lash out when you feel like you are being swindled
Building rapport means developing mutual trust and affinity with someone else. This can be achieved by using mirrors and driving negotiations toward a "That's right" moment
The similarity principle dictates that people trust other people more when they view those people as similar rather than dissimilar. You can use the similarity principle and build rapport with your counterpart by using "mirrors."
Mirroring means repeating the last three words or the 1-3 key words of what your counterpart has just said. It's a simple but surprisingly effective way to build rapport with someone else. Remember to practice mirroring by sprinkling mirrors in your day-to-day conversations to get familiar with the tactic.
Similar to mirroring is understanding the terminology of your counterpart and adopting it in your own speech. As an example, Voss mentions negotiating with a client who used a lot of "born again Christian material" in conversations. This led Voss to label a difficult issue with the client's advisors as an issue of "stewardship" to display his understanding of the issue and create a momentary sense of similarity.
Negotiations can end up in a deadlock when either of the parties do not feel like they are being understood or heard. The way you can get things moving again is to listen to your counterpart and then repeat their standpoint to them by paraphrasing the meaning of their message and acknowledging the emotions underlying that meaning.
If you are successful with your summary, your counterpart should respond with "That's right."
Driving toward "That's right" is a winning strategy in all negotiations
— Chris Voss
The opposite of "That's right" is "You're right." "You're right" is the response we give to someone who we want to shut up and leave us alone. Whereas "That's right" signals trust, "You're right" tells us that our counterpart doesn't feel understood and that they might want us to stop bugging them.
In the previous chapter, you learned about the importance of summarizing. However, getting a "That's right" response is not possible if you don't know enough about your counterpart to reconstruct their worldview.
In fact, according to Voss, extracting and observing as much as information as possible in a negotiation situation should be your goal from the beginning. Adopt a mindset of discovery and view your assumptions as hypotheses that need to be tested. Explore the subterranean desires and needs of your counterpart instead of making assumptions based on the surface level.
Calibrated questions are your primary tool to get your counterpart share information with you. Calibrated questions are questions that cannot be answered with "Yes", "No, or a quick factual statement.
Since you want to avoid "Yes" and "No" responses, you should not start your questions with words like "can," "is," "are," "do," or "does," and use instead the five Ws and How: "who," "what," "when," "where," "why," and "how."
"Who," "when," and "where" often result in fact sharing instead of revealing deeper motives. "Why" has an accusatory tone and should be also avoided in most cases (there are couple examples of how to construct calibrated questions with "why" at the end of this chapter). Therefore, "what" and "how" work best with calibrated questions.
Here are Voss's favorite calibrated questions that work in most of negotiation situations:
- "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?" or "What are we trying to accomplish here?"
- "What is the biggest challenge you face?"
- "How am I supposed to do that?"
- "How does this look to you?"
- "What about this works for you?" or "What about this doesn't work for you?"
Your counterpart might not always be the final decision maker and has to get approval from a decision committee. In these situations, you can ask the following questions:
- "How does this affect the rest of your team?"
- "How on board are the people not on this call?"
- "What do your colleagues see as their main challenges in this area?"
"Why" questions can be successful when you turn the tables on a suspicious counterpart and actually force them to defend you and your ideas instead of their current ways of doing things:
- "Why would you ever change from the way you've always done things and try my approach?"
- "Why would your company ever change from your long-standing vendor and choose our company?"
It's also possible to turn a "why" question to a "what" questions. For example, "Why did you do it?" can be reworded as "What caused you to do it?"
The information that you are able to capture with calibrated questions can be used to create leverage and .
There are three types of leverage:
- Positive leverage is the ability to give or withhold things that your counterpart wants. Positive leverage takes you from a situation where you want something from your counterpart to a situation where both of you want something from each other.
- Negative leverage is the ability to hurt your counterpart. Using negative leverage can make your counterpart feel like they are not in control and act irrationally, hurting the negotation process.
- Normative leverage is the ability to use your counterpart's norms against them to get them on your side. Use normative leverage to point out where the beliefs and values of your counterpart don't match with their actions.
Calibrated questions can get your counterpart to talk about their desires and needs but if you're not listening what your counterpart is saying, you won't be able to capture the valuable information that is presented to you:
- Quiet the voices in your own head and focus on your counterpart and what they have to say.
- Review your notes and the notes of your teammates to make sure you're not missing critical details.
- When your counterpart uses a lot of "I," "me," and "my" words, the decision making power might lie somewhere else. By contrast, words like "we," "they," and "them" can indicate that you are interacting directly with the decision maker.
- Prefer face-to-face meetings over emails. There's always information that is not going to be shared in email messages.
You might find yourself in a situation where your counterpart is avoiding your calibrated questions, giving you rehearsed answers, or clearly disengaging themselves from the conversation.
Here are three different tips for three different situations where you need to get someone's attention:
- If you are not able to set a time for a face-to-face meeting because the other party has stopped replying to your emails and calls, send this one-liner to them: "Have you given up on this project?"
- To get someone's attention in a conversation, mislabel your counterpart's standpoint. Make an observation about their demeanour or motives that is clearly wrong. They will likely correct you immediately and open up: "No that's not it. This is it..."
- To help your counterpart lower their guard, ask them what they don't want (for example, "Let's talk about what you would say 'No' to"). This allows the other person to practice self-protection and relax a little bit.
Your counterpart will usually give precedence to the reasons why not to make a deal with you over the reasons why to make a deal. Also, when we treat negativities as elephants in the room, we inadvertently give them more credence. Because of this, it's often better to discuss objections with your counterpart instead of denying their existence of validity.
The way you can handle barriers is to label emotions and start with a no instead of yes.
Labeling means validating your counterpart's emotions by acknowledging them. Here are the three steps of effective labeling:
- Identify your counterpart's emotional state by observing their words, tone of voice, and body language.
- Turn the emotions into words and repeat them to your counterpart (for example, "It's seems like you are really passionate about this project and don't want it to fail.")
- Let your label sink in and allow your counterpart to respond by being silent for four seconds
Here is how most of your labels should start:
- "It seems like..."
- "It sounds like..."
- "It looks like..."
Never use the word "I" in your labels (for example, "I'm hearing that...") because "I" puts the focus on you and your observations instead of your counterpart and their feelings.
Here are two additional tips for labeling:
- Accusation audit means listing the worst things your counterpart could say about you and telling them to your counterpart before they can do the same. Accusation audits prevent negative dynamics from spiraling out of control. Since these audits usually sound exaggerated, your counterpart might even start defending you.
- If the tone of voice or body language of your counterpart doesn't align with their words, you can use a label to discover the source of this conflict. For example, "I heard you say 'Yes,' but it seemed like there was hesitation in your voice."
Some sales people use a "Yes" pattern with their customers; they ask, one after another, simple questions where the obvious answer is "Yes," and then in the end slip in the final ask hoping that by now their customers will say yes to pretty much anything.
The problem with the "Yes" pattern, however, is that we don't like it when we are cornered by "Yes" questions. We will start to lose our sense of control if we don't have a chance to stand our ground and say "No" to the sales person.
Seek a "No" from your counterpart to make them feel in control, slow things down, and really consider what you're proposing to them.
When you get the "no," don't treat it as rejection but as an opportunity to improve the communications with your counterpart. Voss lists the following alternative meanings of "no":
- "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"
- "I want to talk it over with someone else"
To learn more about what your counterpart means with their "No," ask them calibrated questions ("What about this doesn't work for you? What would you need to make it work?") or use a a label ("It seems like there's something here that bothers you").
If you are not able to get a "No" from your counterpart, consider it as a warning: you are dealing with an indecisive or confused counterpart or a counterpart with a hidden agenda.
Agreement alone is not enough if you and your counterpart won't follow through and end up taking any action. Make sure your counterpart has actually bought into your solution and not just agreeing with you to please you or to stop you from bugging them.
"Yes" responses can be deceiving. There are actually three types of "Yes" that your counterpart can give you:
- Counterfeit: Your counterpart plans to say no but feels like it's easier or better for their agenda to say yes.
- Confirmation: A neutral "yes" without any promise of action given to a yes-no question.
- Commitment: This is the "yes" you want—an agreement that leads to action.
You can use Voss's Rule of Three to figure out whether any agreement is real or not. Try to get your counterpart commit to the same thing three times in the same conversation. It's difficult for most of us to repeatedly fake our true opinions:
- First sign of commitment is the initial "Yes"
- For the second sign of commitment, use a label or a summary to get a "That's right" response
- For the third sign of commitment, use a calibrated question that defines success: "How will we know we're on track?" or "What do we do if we get off track?"
An alternative to this is to ask a different version of the same calibrated question three times. For example, "What's the biggest challenge you faces? What are we up against here What do you see as being the most difficult thing to get around?"
Your counterpart will put more effort in the implementation if they think the final solution is their idea. The two most important questions you can use to let your counterpart define the success criteria for the solution are the ones from the previous section:
- "How will we know we're on track?"
- "What do we do if we get off track?"
After your counterpart has answered these questions, summarize their answer to them and listen to their response:
- If your counterpart says "That's right," you have buy-in from them.
- If your counterpart says "You're right," they might not have a personal stake in the solution.
- If your counterpart says "I'll try," they meant to say "I plan to fail."
If you got a "You're right" or "I'll try" from your counterpart, continue with calibrated questions followed up by summarizing until you get a "That's right."
These are the tactics you can deploy and should be aware of when it's time to discuss offers and counteroffers.
An anchor is a number or a scenario you can present at the outset of a negotiation to guide your counterpart's thinking. Here is how you can use anchors:
- Start negotiations with accusation audits that acknowledge your counterpart's fears and prepares them for loss. Your counterpart will see any compromise as an opportunity to avoid a loss (remember that loss avoidance is often the bigger driver compared to possible gains).
- Get your counterpart name their number (price or budget) first. If your counterpart keeps pushing you to be the first to name a number, establish a range with a high anchor instead of giving a specific value. Voss was once pushed to give a price when negotiating with one of his clients about his training fees. His response, "Well, if you go to Harvard Business School, they're going to charge you $2,500 a day per student."
- Savvy counterparts often lead with extreme anchors. Be prepared for this. Your counterpart has succeeded with their anchor if you switch your focus from goals to loss avoidance.
When the concept of fairness is introduced to negotiation situations, things can become emotional very quickly: if we feel like we or others aren't treated fairly, we might lash out and take up arms against the oppressor.
The word "fair" is an extremely powerful word in any communication. Here are four examples of how it's used in negotiations:
- Fairness can be used to defend one's position or accuse others of mistreatment—"We just want what's fair." One way to address this accusation is by responding, "Okay, I apologize. Let's stop everything and go back to where I started treating you unfairly and we'll fix it."
- Your counterpart can press you to accept their offer— "We've given you a fair offer." Use a mirror to respond and try to get your counterpart share more information: "Fair? It seems like you're ready to provide the evidence that supports that."
- You can use "fair" to lay the groundwork for a productive and honest negotiation: "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."
- Use "That's fair" as a positive reinforcement when your counterpart presents you with an offer that you are ready to agree with.
Responding with a blunt "No" to your counterpart's offer or solution that doesn't meet your goals is a missed opportunity to keep the conversation going and get your counterpart to bid against themselves.
Here are four steps to rephrase a "No" before actually saying the word:
- Ask your counterpart, "How am I supposed to do that?" and put the onus on them to come up with a better solution. This question should sound like a request for assistance and not an accusation so pay attention to your tone of voice.
- Use some version of "You're offer is very generous, I'm sorry, that just doesn't work for me."
- Say "I'm sorry but I'm afraid I just can't do that."
- Say "I'm sorry, no"
The last option is to say "No" delivered with a downward inflection (late-night FM DJ—not assertive— voice).
Here are two tactics for your salary negotiations with a potential employer.
First, introduce non-salary terms to the negotiation and be "pleasantly persistent" on them. Voss gives an example of a French-born student of his who kept asking—with a big smile—an extra week of vacation from a potential American employer because she was "French" and "that's what French people did." The company trying to hire her increased instead their salary offer because they couldn't meet her non-salary demands.
Second, define what success looks like in your position and the metrics for your next raise to set the stage for future raises. A good calibrated question for this step is to ask your interviewers, "What does it take to be successful here?"
You can use the Ackerman model when you need to haggle with your counterpart. Here are the steps of the model presented by Voss:
- Set your target price (your goal)
- Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target price
- Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95, and 100 percent)
- Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying "No" to get the other side to counter before you increase the offer.
- When calculating the final amount, use precise, nonround numbers like, say, $37,893 rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight.
- On your final number, throw in a nonmonetary item (that they probably don't want) to show you're at your limit
The idea behind the decreasing percentage increments is to give the impression that your counterpart is pushing you to your limit: your first concession is an increase of 20%, second 10%, and final 5% of the target price.
The way the world looks to you is not the way it looks to others. Yet we often project our own communication and negotiation style on our counterparts.
Voss divides negotiators into three broad categories.
Analysts are systematic negotiators who prefer diligence over rushing. They take pride in minimizing mistakes and follow the motto "As much time as it takes to get it right." Use clear data when negotiating with an analyst and avoid asking too many questions until they understand how much leverage their answers can give you. If you're an analyst, remember to smile to make it easier for others to feel comfortable sharing information with you.
Accommodators are social and likeable negotiators who want to spend their time in building a relationship with their counterpart. All this relationship building might however make it more difficult for you to uncover objections if your counterpart is an accommodator. Use calibrated questions that are focused on implementation to translate an accommodator's talk into action. If you're an accommodator, your likability is your strength but don't forget the importance of voicing out your objections to your team and your counterpart.
Assertives are negotiators who love winning and getting things done fast. Their communication style is aggressive and they want to be heard. If your counterpart is an assertive, you need to listen to their point of view because they won't listen to you until they themselves feel understood and heard. If you're an assertive, soften your tone of voice and use labels and calibrated questions to make yourself more approachable and open for collaboration.
To learn more about these types, you can download an official PDF about them here.
You might find yourself in a negotiation situation where the actions of your counterpart don't seem to make any sense and you are tempted to label them as "crazy." Voss reminds us that no one is actually "crazy." Instead, your counterpart can...
- be ill-informed. In this situation your job is discover what information your counterpart is missing and provide them with that information.
- be constrained. Your counterpart might not be able to close a deal because of legal advice, current obligations, or lack of decision making power among other things.
- have other interests. According to Voss, "your counterpart will often reject offers for reasons that have nothing to do with their merits."
Rather than labeling your counterpart "crazy," always ask yourself, "Why are they communicating what they are communicating right now?"
Aggressive counterparts are often the "command-and-control" types who prefer consent over collaboration. Instead of getting into power struggles with assertives, Voss suggests us to use the following steps instead:
Use the the late-night FM DJ voice—not the assertive voice.
Use mirrors instead of "What do you mean by that?" questions to get more clarity out of your counterpart. For example:
"We need a decision as soon as possible"
"I'm sorry, as soon as possible?"
Follow each mirror with at least four seconds of silence to let the mirror "work its magic."
An additional tactic for handling unproductive communication is to say "I feel ___ when you ___ because ___." Deliver this in a mindful and non-aggressive manner.
If none of these tactics work, before pushing back, suggest a time-out to de-escalate the situation. You can also try to wear down a highly aggressive counterpart by delaying email responses and making scheduling a meeting with you difficult.
As mentioned in the previous section, aggressive counterparts should be dealt with coolness rather than aggression. However, sometimes our counterparts can make us angry and wanting to lash out.
The main reason for avoiding lashing out is that the more your counterpart feels understood and positively affirmed, the more likely they are to engage in constructive rather than destructive behavior.
Here are the tips for dealing with anger:
- Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Instead pause and think to keep your emotional cool.
- Focus on the unsolved issue. Your counterpart is never the problem. The issue is.
- Respond to verbal assaults with calibrated questions—not counterattacks.
Don't try to wing this stuff at the negotiation table. Prepare for negotiations using Voss's Negotiation One Sheet. Here is brief summary of the content of the one sheet (you can download the full PDF here):
- Think through the possible best and worst case scenarios, and then write down your goal that should be optimistic but reasonable
- Summarize the current situation ("Why are you there? What do you want? What do they want? Why?") and be prepared to deliver this summary to your counterpart
- Think through the possible accusations your counterpart might have (see labeling and accusation audits) and prepare three to five labels for them
- Prepare three to five calibrated questions that you can use to discover underlying motivations and objections
- Prepare a list of non-monetary items that your counterpart has and that would make you rethink your monetary goal
Here is a list of the official PDF files mentioned in this summary: