matt tillotson

Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss

“... I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast.”

—Harry Ellis

In the Christmas classic* Die Hard, Harry Ellis hatches a scheme to negotiate with Hans Gruber, who has taken the Nakatomi Plaza office tower by force, holding Ellis and his co-workers hostage.

Ellis portrays all the stereotypes we think of in a business negotiation. He’s slick-talking, self-interested, intellectually arrogant, aloof, and insincere—and those are his better qualities.

Ellis fast-talks his way into being murdered by Gruber’s henchmen.

In most business negotiations, we are afraid the other side will behave like Ellis—being brash, evasive, and trying to get one over on us. So we raise our defenses. We focus primarily on our wants—and what we want to say next—so we don’t listen and don’t learn. Usually, end up with a worse outcome than we could have had.

Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, has another way.

The title of his book “Never Split the Difference,” focuses on mindset—yours and that of your counterpart—and then offers many actionable insights to help you create the collaborative environment you need to for a successful negotiation.

Your counterpart’s mindset

Voss believes humans are of two minds: emotional and rational. The emotional mind is command, and above all seeks safety, security, and control. The rational mind is used to justify emotion: logic is the supporting framework for feelings.

The goal, then, is to create an environment of comfort and safety that allows the other party to feel a sense of control and autonomy. At that point, you set the stage for collaboration and real discussion.

Your mindset

“It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there.”

Voss argues we must embrace conflict (calmly and with empathy) and view negotiation as a fact-finding mission. Negotiation is a continuous act of discovery, not an attempt to dominate.

A friend and former boss used to tell me: “Be the dancing bear—draw their fire,” meaning there is tremendous value in eliciting and understanding objections and concerns.

Using this framework requires a mindset shift. You aren’t in a quid-pro-quo contest to gain the most from your “opponent.” Instead, you’re an explorer, acting like Indiana Jones to uncover the clues that will lead you to the prize you seek.

By the way: this is hard.

It takes tremendous emotional control and ego suppression to fight your need to immediately be heard, to be “right,” and to feel in control. Ironically, you gain control and end up being “right”—achieving your objective—by putting the other party’s communication and emotional needs first.

Key strategies and tactics

With the environment set, you can move on to more tactical steps to move your negotiation forward. What follows are just a few of the more interesting and useful concepts Voss shares from his time with the FBI.

Asking questions

Voss argues most people behave schizophrenically in a negotiation, either speaking or thinking about what they will say next—and rarely listening. The voice in our head is constantly yelling at us, writing dialogue scripts on the fly and doing a poor job of anticipating our counterpart’s next actions.

Quiet the voice in your head focusing completely on what the other person has to say. Ask calibrated and open-ended questions that start with the journalistic classics who, what, when, where, why, and how. Get the other party to open up and talk about their objectives. But be careful with “why,” as why-questions usually come off as aggressive or accusatory. What and how usually work best.

Great negotiators uncover the “black swans,” or hidden surprises, held by the other side that greatly affect a deal. Voss thinks each side usually has three surprises, or pieces of information, that if discovered will change the balance and trajectory of a negotiation.

Question yourself as well—especially your own assumptions. This helps you stay emotionally open to other possibilities and agile in a fluid negotiating situation.

Mirroring, or isopraxism, is a way to creating bonding, comfort, and to keep the other party talking. At the FBI, mirroring is simply about repeating the last (or most important) three words back to the speaker to convey a sense of empathy and collaboration:

”By repeating back what people say, you trigger this mirroring instinct and your counterpart will inevitably elaborate on what was just just said and sustain the process of connecting. Psychologist Richard Wiseman created a study using waiters to identify what was the more effective method of creating a connection with strangers: mirroring or positive reinforcement.

One group of waiters, using positive reinforcement, lavished pride and encouragement on patrons using words such as “great,” “no problem,” and “sure” in response to each order. The other group of waiters mirrored their customers simply by repeating their orders back to them. The results were stunning: the average tip of the waiters who mirrored was 70 percent more than of those those who used positive reinforcement.

Labeling is the close cousin of mirroring, in which you acknowledge and label the emotions and intentions of the other party. But avoid using “I” in your observations. Instead, lead with “It seems like,” or, “It feels like.” For example: “It seems like you want to complete this this week,” instead of “I feel like you want to complete this this week.” Using “I” creates separation and defensiveness.

Finally, don’t get wrapped up what the other person is asking for, but rather focus on their interests—why they are asking for it. Calibrated questions and mirroring will reveal the answers.

Voice as a tone-setter

Voss says there are three tones of voice available to us during negotiation. Most of the time, you should use the first option: the positive/playful voice, as that builds comfort, repore, and collaboration.

The “late-night FM radio DJ voice” connotes authority, but calmly. When an item is non-negotiable for you, you can serenely state your position, without inducing anxiety, and also without leaving the door open to a challenge against your position.

Picture yourself working as a DJ in 1970s, on the 3AM shift, at a jazz station. You might be saying, “We cannot accept a non-disclosure clause,” but your tone is that of the DJ introducing a Miles Davis song, with a whiskey in one hand and some awful unfiltered cigarette in the other. Calm, smooth, welcoming, and confident.

The third voice is the direct/assertive voice, which is mostly to be avoided. The assertive voice creates tension and pushback, and is used far too often in business discussions, usually when the speaker is feeling fear and lack of control.

“Irrational behavior”

When people appear to behave irrationally or make “crazy” decisions, it often indicates your failure as negotiator. People rarely act crazy—that’s just your perception. In reality, the person is operating from a perspective, rules, or pressure that you failed to discover.

For example:

  • They may be operating with incomplete information. Discover what they don’t know and supply the information.
  • They may have a constraint they don’t want to share, usually because they will appear powerless.
  • They may have other interests, such as changing goals or other outside objectives competing for their time and resources.

Leverage

Leverage is fluid, emotion-based, and tips the balance of power. Voss states leverage comes in three flavors:

  • Positive - the ability to give or withhold something your counterpart wants.
  • Negative - the ability to make a counterpart suffer, often by invoking loss aversion.
  • Normative - using the other party’s norms and standards—their worldview—to advance your position. When someone takes a position that conflicts with their stated philosophy or practices, you can use that as leverage to gently steer them back on course.

Voss believes leverage can always be created, because leverage grows out of emotion. Negotiators must be aware of who holds leverage at any given time in a negotiation and act accordingly.

Additional quick tips

  • In a typical meeting, you can learn the most just before the meeting, or during the “wrap up” period.
  • Loss Aversion shows people are statistically more likely to act to avert a loss than to achieve an equal gain. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is often the most powerful motivator.
  • The perceived loss of autonomy is very powerful. Let the other side preserve the right to say “no.” In fact, push for a “no”—it is far more effective than pushing for a “yes,” which makes people feel like they are being forced into compliance. No feels like self-protection, and helps people relax.
  • Use a team to listen in a negotiation. We all have selective listening, filtered by our cognitive biases which are built around our goals and assumptions.
  • The barriers to reaching an agreement are often more powerful than the reasons to make a deal.

It’s impossible to sum up all the helpful details in this book. But if you question your own assumptions, listen far more than you speak, build comfort and a sense of control, affirm and echo the other side’s positions and feelings, you’ll be in a far better position to achieve a positive outcome.

In other words, you won’t be Harry Ellis.

*Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas classic. That’s non-negotiable. (Said in a late-night FM-DJ voice, of course.)