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Never Split the Difference: Jedi Mind Tricks for Negotiators

Jedis have lightsabers and mind tricks. Negotiators have tactical empathy and the late-night FM DJ voice. If you’re neither, would it be ridiculous to think that you tend to use the words I want… or I need… a lot? Then it looks like this Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It is for you. A review.

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss is a practical guide, a toolbox in book form if you will. Naturally, all kinds of salesman types are drawn to it. However, it’s equally valuable for anyone who has to communicate about anything – in the workplace, in the family or in a fight over an armrest on a plane.

First Impressions

I first came across Chris Voss in one of his interviews. He’s a former lead FBI hostage negotiator and founder of the negotiation training firm The Black Swan Group. What makes Chris a fascinating character is not only the thrilling aura that surrounds his former job. It’s also his character, in that he describes himself as rather disagreeable and assertive by nature, which is seemingly a contradiction to the methods featured in the book.

The featured negotiation strategies and tactics all revolve around empathy and reciprocity. In his early days, assertive Chris seemed to have a hard time with the idea of building rapport with equally assertive criminals. There’s really no debate around hostage takers after all. What they do is wrong and they need to surrender unconditionally. In such a hardliner mindset, empathy can be easily, yet falsely, associated with weakness. Of course, that’s not how it works. Chris convincingly makes the case for a form of collaborative negotiation that can be used with even the most unlikable criminals. But more on that later.

Now, how are we supposed to apply this to our less-lethal civilian lives? Well, there’s surprisingly little difference. Through a collaboration with Harvard University, Voss tweaked his wisdom here and there, but the basic lessons seem to be the same. The dynamics of human behaviour and interaction don‘t change much across contexts and cultures. Now you, too, can negotiate as if your life depended on it. Because it does. If you manage to get your kid to bed in time, imagine how many hours of infighting you can spare the two of you. If you manage to get that raise you need to pay the mortgage and go on holiday, imagine how much more motivated and less bitter you’ll go to work every day.

Inside the Mind of a Master Negotiator

Chris’ writing is enriched by a wealth of anecdotes from his career as hostage negotiator.

Chris writes with a very personal touch, a friendly and upbeat tone. This is complemented by witty self-irony and nostalgic flashbacks to some of his biggest failures and lessons learned. He’s also not afraid to blow his own horn and proudly tell you about his wins and achievements applying the techniques he and his colleagues refined over the years. In short, he comes across as a likeable guy to whom you’d give up your hostages any time. That’s not a coincidence.

The book itself falls into 10 chapters, each dealing with one valuable tool or principle; such as the importance of empathy. What’s particularly handy is the summary of key lessons learned at the end of each section. Chris’ writing is enriched by a wealth of anecdotes from his career as a hostage negotiator, but also success stories from his negotiation classes. These range from his dealings with ruthless kidnappers in the Philippines to how one of his students ended up coaching their family to use the techniques to their advantage. Apart from personal experience, he backs his strategies and tactics up with psychological principles and research.

It’s all under the umbrella of collaboration. Instead of stealing the problems of your counterpart, you’re coached to get the other side to come up with solutions for your shared problems. So, what do some of these magical tools look like?

The Addiction to Correct

Here’s one you can use right away without much skill and practice: Exploiting the human addiction to correckd. There’s something about a fact we know to be false or a terrible spelling mistake we can’t give a pass. We get a kick out of correcting it. Now if we think about information management as one of the goals in a negotiation, we can see the value in that. Triggering a correction is a way to elicit what’s keeping the other side from giving you what you want; a discount for example. As a side effect, they even like you a bit more because correcting you made them feel good.

“Tell me why you don’t give me a discount, or else!” is much less effective than saying “You’ve probably already used up your monthly quota for discounts,” and prompting them to correct you. 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.

The Only Voices You’ll Ever Need

Worked? Great! Now consider the tone of voice you used when doing it. Negotiation is less about logic or persuasion, and more about emotions. Getting your own temperament under control is key. 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. While you should be aware of it, according to Voss, you can safely almost never use it. This limits your repertoire to two tones. Luckily, the second voice is kind of a cure for the assertive one.

It’s what Chris describes as the late-night FM DJ voice. A slow, calm, measured and soothing way of talking with a distinct downward inflection at the end of each sentence. Almost a bit sleepy. Mind you, it’s late at night. What it does is calm your counterpart down so they can think better. You can use it to counter someone’s aggression or even to calm yourself down if you’re nervous. Try it out, it works like a charm.

Lastly, we have the playful and upbeat voice, a friendly likeable way of talking. In a way, this is the tone Chris writes 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?

Tactical Empathy

The concept of tactical empathy runs through the whole book and apparently through Chris’ veins. It’s tactical because you’ll use it to get closer to your goal in a negotiation. Being the assertive type, Voss himself had to learn that empathy for criminals does not mean you agree with them or condone their actions. When applying it, all you’re doing is to summarise or label the circumstances or emotions your counterparts find themselves in. You do that by stating what things seem, sound or look like from a neutral third-person perspective.

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 such negatives does not place them; as opposed to saying “Please don’t think I’m unthankful”. Instead of hammering your perspective into the other party’s brain, you show them that you understand where they’re coming from, that you know what the world looks like through their eyes. This strategy establishes rapport, diffuses negatives and prompts people to expand on your observation, which makes it more likely that they will agree to a deal.

It’s one of the harder and most lucrative tools to master. Of course, there’s much more to it than this review can capture: What mirroring can do for you. How to discover Black Swans. Why you should never split the difference. (It has to do with the fact that you can’t release half a hostage – alive). Beyond that, the book delves into example scripts on how the different techniques are best combined to complement each other. A prep sheet at the end of the book rounds it all off.

Any Downsides to Never Split the Difference?

Negotiation is primarily a face-to-face and verbal business. Chris himself emphasises the importance of body language, pauses and timing, or other non-verbal cues. That said, there are limitations that come with the medium of a book. For example when it comes to demonstrating what a great delivery sounds like. The book does its best to convey the voices and attitudes by which to deliver your lines most effectively. But inevitably, it loses a bit in that regard.

There’s an audiobook, but it’s not narrated by Chris himself and you’d lose the ability to quickly reference back and forth as well as the invaluable index function. But then again, Voss is running seminars, and a YouTube channel and there are plenty of freely available interviews. Not to mention his masterclass at, well, Masterclass.

Lasting Impressions of Never Split the Difference

Don’t lie to anybody you don’t intend to kill.

In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss distils his years of experience in law enforcement and business negotiations down to less than 300 pages. It left me with a bit of an ethical conundrum. The question is whether Voss’ methods are merely an elegant and friendly way to manipulate people into doing things they later regret. A bit like Jedi mind tricks. Won’t that eventually backfire once your collaborators come back to their senses?

I don’t seem to be alone in this either. Apparently, there are some methods people are initially uncomfortable with. Some require a fair amount of chutzpah. However, I’d say Chris’ approach is a balancing act between influencing and good communication, between pushing for more and collaboration. Some of his methods might seem counterintuitive or even questionable if used with ill intent. His overall concept seems far from it.

This is well-captured in his infamous quote “Don’t lie to anybody you don’t intend to kill.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek reminder that any lie will come to light eventually. As the former FBI agent points out, people are strangely motivated for payback even after years. And if you think you could live with one murder on your conscience, you haven’t factored in your victim’s family and friends.

In other words, Never Split the Difference is all geared towards leaving a negotiation with the relationship intact. In his view, no deal is better than a bad one. The best outcomes are those that make the other side deal with you again in a heartbeat.

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.

Closing Thoughts

In my estimation, you could use Never Split the Difference in three ways. First, it’s an entertaining book of non-fiction in and of itself. Plus, even if you don’t intend to use the techniques yourself, it’ll give you a sense of potential tactics used by others. Strangely enough, if you do find yourself on the receiving end, chances are you’ll feel comfortable with it. Second, it also works as a handbook and reference for the occasional rhetorical party trick.

Third, I think the Never Split the Difference only unfolds its full potential if used as a workbook. Like any toolbox, it’s not much worth without its practical application and that means putting time and effort into mastering the skills. Swing a lightsaber without training and you chop off your hand. Use a Jedi mind trick amateurishly and embarrass yourself.

But with enough practice, it will change the way you approach and talk to people. You could set yourself a goal on the horizon, a big one such as upcoming salary negotiations, getting the best price on a new car or re-negotiating bedtime with your kids.

Read through the lessons, talk to people (as in: a lot of them) and apply your new skills over and over again in low-stakes scenarios. Go back to the book to find out why it didn’t work and have another go until you’re ready for the big one. Finally, rub your hands in glee and astonishment. This stuff actually works.