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If you’ve ever thought or uttered the words I want… or I need…, chances are you were in a negotiation with someone. Probably without realising it. And according to former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, those are the most dangerous negotiations to be in. His bestseller Never Split the Difference is a practical guide to mastering any bargaining scenario you might find yourself in. A toolbox in book form if you will.
Believe it or not, what works when negotiating with hostage takers also works when negotiating your salary, your kids’ bedtimes or when fighting over the armrest on a plane. How? Here’s my review of Never Split the Difference and Chris Voss’ approach to negotiation.
Inside the Mind of a Master Negotiator
A few years back, Chris Voss ended his career as a lead negotiator at the FBI and founded the negotiation training firm The Black Swan Group. He used to negotiate with bank robbers, hostage takers and terrorists for a living. Now he shares the skills he often learned the hard way with the general public.
Chris is a fascinating character. Not only because of the thrilling aura that surrounds his former job. It’s also his personality, in that he describes himself as rather disagreeable by nature. What sounds like good traits to have when it comes to bargaining can, in fact, be a hindrance. Because Voss’ collaborative negotiation strategies revolve around empathy and reciprocity.
You see, in his early days, assertive Chris had a hard time with the idea of building rapport with a criminal. There’s really no debate when it comes to hostage-takers after all. What they do is obviously wrong. They need to stop and surrender unconditionally. But that’s not how you make negotiations work. In the world of Chris Voss, being able to see the world through your counterpart’s eyes to build a trustful relationship is an invaluable tool to negotiate effectively.
What Never Split the Difference Offers
The book itself falls into ten chapters, each dealing with one valuable principle or technique. Chris writes with a very personal touch and in a witty, upbeat tone. His writing is enriched by a wealth of anecdotes from his career talking to criminals. Techniques he and his colleagues refined over the years and adapted for less-lethal scenarios.
He’s not afraid to sing his own praises by telling you about his own wins and the achievements of his students. How he got ruthless criminals to commend him for talking them out of a crime. Or how one of his students ended up coaching their family to use the techniques to their advantage.
But he doesn’t shy away from flashbacks to some of his biggest failures and lessons learned either. His temperament caused him to have a steep learning curve when he started out in the negotiation business. In short, he comes across as a likeable guy to whom you’d give up your hostages any time.
Apart from his personal experience, he backs his strategies and tactics up with psychological principles and research. What’s particularly handy is the summary of key lessons learned at the end of each section. A one-sheet template to help you prepare for an important negotiation at the end of the book rounds it all off.
Featured Negotiation Techniques
Empathy, collaboration, managing your emotions and those of others as well as trust-building are the foundations of Voss’ technique. Instead of stealing the problems from your counterpart, you’re coached to get them to come up with solutions for your shared problems. So how exactly can you accomplish that?
The Only Voices You’ll Ever Need
A cornerstone of Never Split the Difference is the deliberate use of your voice. Voss introduces three distinct voices that will make your life a whole lot simpler.
First, everyone is probably familiar with the assertive voice. The voice of consequence and righteous anger that gives our feeling of justice a boost – and gets us nowhere in the end. You should be aware of this voice and recognise it in others. According to Voss, you should almost never use it yourself, though. This limits your repertoire to two voices.
The second voice is what Chris describes as the late-night FM DJ voice. It’s a slow, calm, measured and soothing way of talking. Note the distinct downward inflection at the end of each sentence. What it does is calm your counterpart down. And if they’re calm, they’re able to think better and solve your problems for you. This is why it can also be used to counter an aggressive negotiator or even to calm yourself down if you’re nervous.
Lastly, we have the playful and upbeat voice, a friendly and likeable way of talking. In a way, this is the default tone Chris writes and talks in. He introduces it as the standard voice you should use 90% of the time (unless you’re negotiating with actual hostage-takers). Now that you’ve found your voice, what else can you do with it?
The concept of Tactical Empathy runs through the whole book and apparently through Chris’ veins. Voss defines it as “the deliberate influencing of your negotiating counterpart’s emotions for the ultimate purpose of building trust-based influence and securing deals.” So-called labels are one way of showing this kind of empathy. Simply describe the circumstances or emotions your counterparts find themselves in or feel. You can do that by stating what things seem, sound or look like from a neutral third-person perspective. For example:
It seems like you’re angry.
It sounds like you think I’m taking up too much space of our armrest.
Looks like you’ve put a lot of effort into securing me that discount and now I want more. I must seem really unthankful.
Chris goes to great lengths to explain why calling out negatives does not place them while saying something like “Please don’t think I’m thankful” absolutely does. The idea is this: Instead of hammering your perspective into the other party’s brain, you attempt to understand where they’re coming from You try to see the world through their eyes and feed the information back to them.
It’s also important to note that this kind of empathy for adversaries does not mean you agree with them or condone their actions. The strategy not only establishes rapport but also diffuses mistrust and prompts people to expand on your observation. It also makes it more likely that your counterpart will agree to a deal.
The Addiction to Correct
Finally, here’s a sneaky method you can use right away without much skill and practice: exploiting our human addiction to correct others. There’s something about things we recognise to be false. A wrong answer to a simple question. Or a terrible spelling miztake. We just can’t give a pass. We get a kick out of correcting it.
Now if we think about negotiation as information management, we can see the value in this human habit. Triggering a correction is an effective way to elicit information from a negotiation counterpart. Imagine you’re looking to get a discount on a new car. What’s keeping the other side from giving you what you want?
“Tell me why you don’t give me a discount, or else!” is much less promising than saying “You’ve probably already used up your monthly quota for discounts,” and prompting them to correct you: “There’s no quota. I’d have to talk to my supervisor.” Now you have something to work with. In fact, if you’re with someone right now, look up and try to find something out about them by using this tactic. I’ll wait here.
Worked? Great! Of course, there are many more tools a review cannot cover. Plus, they’re all integrated into Voss’ larger approach. What can mirroring do for you? How can you discover Black Swans to seal a deal? And why should you never split the eponymous difference? (It has to do with the fact that you can’t release half a hostage – alive). There is, however, a significant caveat.
Chris Voss’ MasterClass
As useful Never Split the Difference is in book form, you can’t ignore its limitations. Negotiation is primarily a verbal face-to-face business. Chris himself emphasises the importance of body language, pauses and timing, or other non-verbal cues. The book does its best to convey all this in written form. For example, the voices by which to deliver your lines most effectively. But nothing beats hearing it from the author himself.
This is why Chris Voss MasterClass is a great way to complement the book. MasterClass is an online learning platform that features more than 180 classes by accomplished experts in their field. I’ve taken Chris’ course myself and found it to be exceptionally well-structured and useful. It features bite-sized video lessons, negotiation case studies and practices and comes with a handy workbook as well.
MasterClass charges $180 dollars for a yearly subscription, which gives you access to Chris negotiation class and 30-day session on how to win workplace negotiations. If that’s not enough you could also take diplomacy lessons from Madeline Albright and Condoleeza Rice. There’s plenty of other useful courses to justify the price.
Influencing vs. Manipulation
In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss distils years of experience in law enforcement and business negotiations down to less than 300 pages. But it left me with a bit of an ethical conundrum: Are Voss’ methods merely an elegant way to manipulate people into doing things they later regret? Like a Jedi mind trick that could eventually backfire once your counterparts come back to their senses.
I don’t seem to be alone in this either. Apparently, it’s not unusual for people to be initially uncomfortable with some of his methods. Triggering a correction by purposefully making a false claim, for example. Or his very upfront email one-liner to prevent you from being ignored by clients. His methods often require a fair amount of chutzpah.
However, if you look at Chris’ philosophy as a whole, you realise it’s a perpetual balancing act between collaboration and looking out for your own interest. Some of his methods might seem counterintuitive or even questionable if used with ill intent. But Never Split the Difference is all geared towards leaving a negotiation with the relationship intact. In Voss’ view, the best outcomes are those that make the other side deal with you again in a heartbeat.
Mastering the art of negotiation takes a lot of practice and works best when you have a purpose in mind. You could set yourself a goal such as winning an upcoming salary negotiation, getting the best price on a new car or re-negotiating bedtime with your kids. In the lead-up to your high-stakes negotiation, learn Chris’ methods one by one and apply your new skills over and over again in low-stakes scenarios.
Finally, rub your hands in glee and astonishment. This stuff actually works. Never Split the Difference truly has the potential to change the way you approach and talk to people. And if Chris can get hostage-takers to congratulate him on a job well done months after everything is over, you should be able to negotiate your armrest space with your seat neighbour without starting a family feud.