Never Split The Difference

Never Split The Difference

Never Split the Difference is one of those reads that friends have recommended for a long time. I never really got around to reading it until now, and I wish I had earlier.

I've always been someone who gets annoyed with negotiation. I'd rather see outcomes and results than spending a lot of time haggling over. This book actually changed my mind in a key way: if you treat negotiation as a game (and some people do!) it can actually be a lot of fun to hang out in the "negotiation" phase.

Practical vs Theoretical

There are a bunch of negotiation and sales books out there, notably Getting to Yes. Negotiation is a typical part of any MBA curriculum.

Chris Voss takes a different approach. He says that his lessons aren't learned from some sort of 'rational theory of humans' (a la Thinking Fast and Slow), but instead honed from actual, real-world experience. And he has the goods to back it up.

Chris was a hostage negotiator in NYC for years before working with the FBI's special forces unit on hostage negotiation. The book is littered with stories of trying to negotiate with terrorists, hijackers, kidnappers, and bank robbers. It's the highest-of-stakes possible negotiation.

He argues that his lessons are learned from years of practical experience, and they eschew the theory of "economically rational" in favor of how people actually act.

What follows are a list of Chris' recommended techniques for handling any negotiation.

Open-ended questions

A key technique in any negotiation is asking open-ended questions. The goal here is to get the other party to stop and think. It also buys you time and can wear down the other person: how do I know my son is alive? how do I get you the $1m?

To use this effectively, you have to let the question "hang in the air". The effect doesn't work if you keep talking. Anecdotally I've noticed this is effective not only in negotiations but even in things like 1:1s–the other person opens up way more if you don't interject!

The late-night FM Radio DJ Voice

Vocal inflection does a lot to either build or undercut trust.

Chris recommends the "late-night FM radio DJ voice". It's calming, yet assertive. Slow, and ends on a lower pitch. "James is gone. I am Chris, you are talking to me now"


Mirroring is a technique to basically reflect back what the person said to them. It's all about building a feeling of being in-sync with the other party. The idea here is that people pick up subtle cues much more than almost anything else.

To mirror effectively, you have to listen closely! It's not enough to just hear someone, you actually have to understand them and what they believe.


The best negotiators are extremely empathetic. Now, this doesn't mean agreeing with the other person. But you do want to put yourself in their shoes. If you can't understand them, you are going to have a bad time negotiating.

Two concrete tactics for doing this well:

  1. name the fear or specific feeling that they have. talk about what they might be most scared of "you're afraid we're going to lock you up forever" or "you really hate these guys don't you?"
  2. do an 'accusation audit'. figure out what they are most likely to be upset about and name-call you, and then put that out there. "you're worried that we are a big corporation and we'll take advantage of you"

Labeling these helps put the other party at ease.

If it's a monetary negotiation, you should understand "how they got to their number"

Get to 'no'

We normally think of trying to get the other person to say 'yes' a bunch of times in a row (think annoying telemarketer who asks you obvious yes questions). It's actually much more powerful getting the other person to say 'no'. this puts them at ease because they have established boundaries and feel much more in control than repeatedly saying 'yes'.

This is explicitly different advice vs Getting to Yes, but intuitively it feels better. Instead of trying to strong-arm the other party into deciding that they are inconsistent, you are helping them establish boundaries and feel at ease.

The best words are "that's right"

Too often people will say "you're right" when they want to ignore you. They basically want you to feel acquiesced to so you will stop bothering them. Instead you want to hear "that's right", that they agree with what you are saying and feel heard. Beware "you're right", focus on areas which do or don't understand.

Monetary tactics

There's a handful of tips for specifically dealing with money...

  • don't be the first to mention a number – if possible you want to let the other party start with a number just to see their range.
  • give a range to be less aggressive – instead of saying a single number, give a range (expecting $130-145k). the low end of the range should be the high end of what you want.
  • offer things that aren't money – are there areas where the other party can give you something valuable that feels cheap to them? e.g. Chris got a cover on the bar association's newsletter which was great advertising and cost them nothing.
  • start with an anchor that is wildly off where they might be.
  • be very specific, it will engender more trust – this feels a bit like a cheap trick to me, but Chris advocates using specific numbers
  • if you don't hear a "no" outright, then you are on track for a deal

Make them feel in control

Ask open-ended questions "How should I do that?" "How do I know they are alive?". This puts the other party feeling like they are in control and it makes them responsible for problem solving how to get something done.

"I'm sorry, I just can't do that" is a magical phrase here.

The best negotiators focus most on listening more than anything. They will ask questions to direct the conversation one way or another.

Negotiator archetypes

There are three main archetypes for negotiators...

  • assertive: wants to talk, most focused on getting an outcome and getting things done.
  • analytical: wants the right answer, okay with long pauses or silences, separates disagreement in negotiation from disagreement with the person.
  • accommodating: wants to preserve the relationship with others. more focused on creating a relationship than getting to a particular outcome. will tend to be uncomfortable with silence.

Note: NOT EVERYONE IS LIKE YOU! it's a common fallacy to think that the other party will behave exactly like you do... but that's probably not true!

Put yourself in their shoes and know what their ideal outcome looks like. Personally I tend more towards an analytical nature.

'I' vs 'they'

In most of Chris's situations, the more the other party uses the word "I", the less power they actually have. The flip-side is the reverse. This doesn't quite bear out in my experience, but I can see how it would in a less trustworthy situation.

Liars use more words than truth tellers and a lot more third-person pronouns.

Ackerman negotiation

There's one specific technique called the Ackerman method, particular to monetary negotiations.

In it, you ladder up the price you are willing to pay: 65%, 85%, 95%, 100%. Each time, the delta becomes smaller and smaller, making the counterparty feel like they have eked as much as they can out of you.

Black swan events

There are some events that you can't possibly predict that change everything, and only become apparent after negotiations have finished. The example here was a bank robber who wanted to be killed by the police. He had no will to live, and thus violated all precedence that had existed up until that point.

A powerful way of uncovering black swans is to learn about the other person's "religion". these are the beliefs that drive them. Often these beliefs will cause them to act consistently and in a way you can articulate. (note: Chris is not a fan of the blanket "we don't negotiate with terrorists" policy, because it means we don't understand them).

Other black swans can come from open ended questions. If buying a property, understanding why the seller is selling is important!

Your own negotiations

Do the 1-pager, and do your research. Spend some time preparing for the negotiation, putting yourself in the other person's shoes.

Create a "best" and "worst" outcome. Anchor yourself towards the best.

If they don't say "no" outright, there's some possibility of an offer near the price you suggested.

Ignore BATNA, it gets you to aim low ("never split the difference"). Humans aren't rational and you should almost always be able to get the outcome you want.

In general, you want to figure out how you and the counterparty can reach for a shared goal. For new jobs: ask in interviews "how do I be successful here?". This will creates an advocate on the other side–if you took their advice they are your first mentor. Theres also a story about a coach "creating immortal moments" in sports. How could you not want that?

Give a reason: when people give a reason (even if it's not super relevant), others are more likely to fulfill the request!