Never Split the Difference is best for those interested in negotiation from the standpoint of a former FBI negotiator. It is also best for those who are interested in a range of negotiation techniques, with a slightly more aggressive slant.
Difficulty to digest:
Never Split the Difference is very conversational and should be relatively easy for anyone to read. The reading pulls you along.
Key Insights of Never Split the Difference:
Never Split the Difference is Chris Voss’s exploration of his knowledge and experience as an FBI negotiator. It’s a mix of personal history, stories, and recommendations. While the primary focus is on negotiation tactics, there’s a fair bit of personal history mixed in. It definitely draws largely on Voss’s past to make points, as opposed to a straightforward play-by-play for negotiation.
A large portion of Never Split the Difference is dedicated to creating comfort in the person you’re negotiating with. Voss covers a number of tactics for doing so including mirroring, labeling, empathetic listening, among others.
One common theme is slowing down the conversation. This can be done by asking questions, emphasizing why the other person is in their position and repeating what has already been said. By slowing down the conversation, space is opened for discussion. This also allows the other person to feel heard and reduce their emotional response. Heightened emotional responses are typical when negotiations get out of hand.
Another major theme of Never Split the Difference is adjusting your tone to reflect empathy and acknowledging emotions. Labeling these emotions can help reduce some of the underlying tension. Tone and word choice are important as they reflect your intent to the other person. The goal is to open a space where you can disagree without being disagreeable.
With creating comfort and reducing emotions as a baseline, Voss explains how you can then move into tactical details. Instead of shooting for yes, you want to find the first set of ‘no’s – these are essentially the bounds or parameters of the negotiation. As you negotiate, pay attention to subtle hints like “you’re right” instead of “that’s right”, indicating whether or not they internally agree with you.
As the negotiation proceeds, stay open to their needs and to uncovering additional information. Your overall goal is to gather as much information as possible and use it to generate the best possible outcome. If you make mistakes along the way, acknowledge them directly and face them upfront. Overall, the other person needs to feel they have autonomy in the negotiation and are not being backed into a corner.
Executing The Deal
As you move through a negotiation, the details can quickly become sticking points. Voss recommends a few tactics for moving through this phase. One is to focus on the how of executing the negotiation. Questions like “How do you expect me to do that?” or “How can I make that happen?” push your partner into helping you come up with and execute the solution.
Another important part of execution is making sure both parties agree. You want genuine buy-in, otherwise, execution may fall apart. This is why empathy, understanding, and coming to an agreement are so important. You also want to get the details ironed out and agreed to before closing the deal, as additional roadblocks can surface as you cover the ‘how’ portion.
It’s also important to focus on the problem at hand (after creating comfort). Voss recommends using phrases like ‘it seems like’ instead of I. That way you direct attention to the situation instead of yourself and your feelings. This space can help bring about solutions that otherwise might get clouded with interpersonal feelings.
Negotiating To Win
The second half of the book takes a bit harder approach to negotiation. These tactics are a bit more reflective of Voss’s FBI negotiation background, though he recommends these as generally useful tactics. There are many situations where these can be useful, but I personally think they require more tact.
Negotiations are completely arbitrary. There are no right or wrong deals and there is nothing that is objectively fair. You can use this concept of ‘fairness’ however, to turn deals in your favor. Voss recommends giving the other party the illusion of control while maintaining a firm grasp of the situation. Here are a few more subversive tactics he recommends.
Never Split the Difference recommends creating or challenging arbitrary deadlines. In some situations, you can use them to add pressure, and in others, you can challenge their deadlines to give yourself more space. This is playing on people’s natural tendency to avoid loss. If the deal seems like it’s going to disappear, people are more likely to act.
Another recommended tactic is letting others provide the first number. By showing empathy, asking questions, and leaving space, most people will get nervous and make the first move. This gives you additional information about their position form which you can negotiate. Whenever possible, don’t push, wait for them to pull as it gives you an advantage.
If you absolutely must go first Voss recommends tactics like anchoring, which is setting a price far from where you hope to land and using odd and specific numbers to give the illusion of precise calculations. He even outlines a very specific negotiation strategy using an extreme anchor with moderate increases.
Finally, there’s discussion of ‘finding the black swan’. This is essentially an unknown but crucial piece of information you can use to turn the negotiation to your advantage. This is why it’s so important to open space for discussion. Information is the best advantage you can have and creates the most leverage.
Final Opinion on Never Split the Difference
While Never Split The Difference is a fairly easy read, I would only recommend it to those who have some prior experience and/or working knowledge of negotiation. Voss speaks about negotiation in a way that seems to mirror his FBI background, situations which are unlikely to map onto the average person’s daily life. The read requires some parsing to determine what fits for you and your goals.
Never Split the Difference: Other Considerations
The tone and framing of certain sections can be a bit aggressive and demeaning. For example, Voss calls a commonly used strategy “win-win”, “win-wimp”. Disparaging these positions is done out-of-hand without much discussion of the nuances. For a mindset that has helped a lot of people improve their ability to negotiate, the frame is a bit disappointing.
This book can also feel very self-congratulatory, stepping beyond the bounds of normal pride and into the realm of ego. While Voss is no doubt accomplished, the tone can be a bit grating. Also, there are quite a few instances of Voss describing how successful he is relative to others, for example how well he was able to negotiate against Ivy League students with no experience. Again, at face value, not a problem, but the tone feels like it’s on the aggressive end.
Finally, some tactics feel a bit dubious. For example, Voss recommends intentionally saying the wrong thing so others feel more comfortable after correcting you. This makes little sense to me, as he also advocates for demonstrating empathy and understanding. He also recommends phrases like “It seems like you want this project to fail” which again, come off pretty passive-aggressive and suboptimal – directly contradicting other parts of the book.
All in all, this is a decent book on negotiation but Voss’s style comes across as fairly aggressive and mirrors his FBI history. He makes claims like ‘people are always trying to take advantage of you’ – which makes sense coming from such a high-stakes adversarial background but seems less applicable in standard, daily life. Since the content is delivered through such a specific lens (even though it’s phrased as global), I strongly recommend this as a supplemental resource instead of a primary one.
Applicable Content/Reflection Questions
- How well do you create comfort during negotiations in your life?
- What tone do you usually use when negotiating?
- What part of negotiation feels most difficult to you? How can you become stronger in that area?