Never Split the Difference: The Most Important Lessons

Most of the things you know about negotiation up to this point are probably wrong – that is the thing you realize when reading this book. Never Split the Difference is a primer on the art of negotiation, and Chris Voss is not just any random person to tell us about this; he has the experience to back it up.

Chris Voss spent 24 years in the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, and for four of those years he was the chief international hostage and kidnapper negotiator (with experience in Iraq, the Philippines, Columbia and Haiti). He currently runs his own company, The Black Swan Group, were he conducts negotiation training and consulting.

The book is not just fascinating from a crisis negotiation viewpoint, but also from a business, non-life-or-death, situation. This is all the more true because Chris Voss is not some high-minded sales person intend on selling a single ‘trick’. Instead he has the actual negotiation experience in the field with kidnappers and terrorists.

There are a lot of lessons in Never Split The Difference, but the three most important ones to us are the following:

Forget ‘Yes’

Most sales people and negotiators always push for ‘yes’. When you a telemarketer calls you, have you noticed they always start with a few questions to which the only reasonable answer is ‘yes’? That’s the traditional approach. The idea being that it primes people into a ‘yes’ mindset, or into an affirmative mood. It turns out that this is not actually true, and that it’s really just an annoying tactic that doesn’t work. You might say ‘yes’ a few times to the telemarketer, but you’re probably not willing to buy or commit to anything.

In contrast, the book argues that ‘no’ should be the start of a negotiation or sales pitch. ‘No’ makes people feel safe and secure, it defines their borders, and gives them confidence because they are in control of the situation. ‘No’ helps to set the baseline and is the official start of the negotiation.

Seeking a ‘no’ also helps with follow-ups. If you haven’t heard from a prospect or client, and they’re not responding to your messages, just send an email with a message along the lines of: ‘have you giving up on this project?’

More often than not you will find that framing this question in a negative way will motivate and urge people to respond back.

So what is better than a ‘yes’ when you’re trying to go for a positive spin? Look for questions or topics that make the other party go ‘that’s right!’ The ‘that’s right’ is a building block to understand their point of view and their take on the problem or negotiation – this is a foundation for success. The question that prompts a ‘that’s right’ response usually is one that requires empathy and an effort to understand their point.

This brings us to…

Become a Good Listener

Probably the best advice from Never Split the Difference – and also the most obvious when you think about it – is that in any form of negotiation listening is the most essential skills. In every negotiation there are at least two parties, and the only way to bring it to a successful conclusion is to understand who the other party is and what it is that they want exactly.

All people want to be understood; they want you to understand what motivates them and why they’re doing something. Ideally, they want you to understand their cause and agree with them. This is why any negotiation is going to quickly run into the ground without empathy and without an attempt to understand the other party.

Listening is the main part of empathy. You don’t have to agree with the other party, and you don’t have to give into their demands, but you are going to have to listen to them. Not just because without listening there would be no negotiation, but also because when people start to feel understood, they are going to share more information. More information equals a higher level of understanding, and a better ability to make decisions and achieve your goals.

So, how do you become a better listener, and how do you let the other party do most of the talking?

First, listening is a conscious effort. Active listening is not easy, and the urge to jump in and say something is going to be great. So bite your tongue. Take a moment to reflect. And only when you’re absolutely certain about what you want to say, should you actually say it.

Second, there are ‘tricks’ you can use. One of the most useful tricks is called mirroring. Simply repeat the last few words (or the last critical word) someone said and this will signal to the other party that you’re listening. It helps the other person to connect their thoughts, and it gives you a chance to think and prepare your response.

A simple example of mirroring: if an employee says “I want to get a raise”, you can counter by saying “…get a raise?” In turn, this pushes the employee to reveal more information. It could be that the employee feels underappreciated, underpaid, or maybe he/she has an offer from a different company. You don’t know this information, but by mirroring you have a good chance of finding out without giving a response and without giving information from your side.

Mirrors also work because it reflects understanding and empathy. It lets the other side do the talking, and the more talking is happening, the bigger the chance that they will reveal a piece of information or strategy.

Third, when asking questions avoid the ones that can be answered with a single word. Instead, ask questions that start with ‘how’ or ‘what’. Both these type of questions will encourage the other party to reveal information and it keeps them engaged in the talk. In contrast, you should avoid ‘why’ questions because there is a good chance that it will be seen as an accusative question.

Finally, one great tip from the book is to do an accusation audit. In a negotiation or talk, simply start by saying all the negative things that the other party might think of you. So if an employee asks for a raise and you’re not willing to do that, start the talk by saying ‘you know, you probably think that I’m a scrooge, that I don’t care about my employees, …’

List the worst possible things about yourself or your history. This helps to deflect the other’s party’s anger, and it helps them to feel understood right away.

Uncover the ‘unknown unknowns’

Chris Voss named his company the Black Swan Group as a reference to the unknown unknowns that always have a chance to surface during negotiations, and that you should actively try to seek out. Every negotiation or case that you’re working on is unique due to the details and the people involved. This means that you cannot rely a 100% on your past experiences or on some predefined script.

There are always a few “game changers” in negotiating that would totally change the situation or turn the tables when discovered. It’s finding these black swans that can really help your case.

In Never Split The Difference, Voss gives an example from his career as a hostage negotiator, when a man went into a bank and held several employees hostage. The hostage-taker demanded that the police have a shoot-out with him at exactly 3 o’clock or he would kill a hostage. Up to that point, no hostage-taker had ever shot a hostage right on time. But at 3 o’clock the man took one of his hostages, walked up near to the window and shot her. He then walked in full frontal view of the window, looked at the sniper positioned across the street, and was shot. The hostage-taker didn’t want money, fame, or planned an escape. It was the first death-by-cop case in the United States, and a perfect example of an unknown unknown taking place.

This is a piece of black swan information that, if the negotiators had known the intent of the hostage-taker, would have totally altered the situation.

So how can you possibly uncover such information? Again, it comes down to empathy, understanding, and making an effort to get to know the other party and their worldview. Try to exploit the similarity principle, in which you present yourself as a ‘similar person’ to the other party. The similarity could be the same religion, culture, personality traits, et cetera. But as soon as we think the other party is similar to us, we are more open to concede information and to continue talking.

It is also a great idea to have multiple people reviewing the case, and listen to the talks. One person cannot possibly absorb all of the information and clues, but multiple persons tend to notice different (complementary) pieces of information. So review all the information together, compare notes, and discuss the details of the case.

Finally, in order to find the unknown unknowns it is essential to get face-to-face time with the other party. The majority of the information we emit comes from non-verbal cues, which get lost if we talk on the phone or through messages.


Never Split The Difference is full of great information on the art negotiating and becoming a better negotiator, even if you’ve never had much experience in it. What people might not realize is that a lot of things in life are a negotiation. Negotiating is not just a skill you use to talk to hostage-takers, but also when deciding who is going to cook tonight. It’s not just about terrorists, but also about discussions with employees, bosses, or clients. This is why everyone could potentially benefit from becoming a better negotiator, and Never Split The Difference is an excellent primer for that.

Interested? View the book on Amazon.

Photo credit: Chris Liverani (Unsplash)

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