Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz
LET’s get this clear: You don’t get the life you deserve, you get the life you negotiate.
That said, who better to guide you in the best techniques for negotiation than someone who was involved in genuinely high-stakes negotiating – world-class ex-FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. Having seen too many B-Grade movies, your perception of dealing with hostage-takers, as was mine, may be assembling an armour-clad SWAT team, getting a clear head shot at the hostage taker, and rescuing the terrified victims.
After seeing too many incidents end in disaster for the victims, the FBI turned to using very sophisticated negotiation techniques. Most business negotiators are raised on the “Getting to Yes” approach of Fisher and Ury.
One of their keys to negotiating is the assumption that the other side is going to “act rationally and selfishly in trying to maximize their position”. Your task is to get as much as you can. The only people who come close to doing this are those negotiating with other people’s money and who will make an outsized commission irrespective of the outcome.
The book’s title, Never Split the Difference, highlights the deficiencies in this approach. What is splitting the difference in a hostage negotiation? I’ll give you $5m instead of your asking price of $10m and you kill only 8 hostages and free 12?
“Negotiation, as you’ll learn it here, is nothing more than communication with results,” Voss explains. The economist Amos Tversky and the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the founders of the field of behavioural economics, won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating that man is in fact (and even in business) a very irrational beast.
The beauty of the method Voss teaches is how easy it is to grasp the basics, even if it may take years to perfect these techniques. The method Voss describes was developed because it is easy to teach, easy to learn, and easy to execute. It was designed for police officers who weren’t interested in becoming academics or therapists.
They simply needed a highly effective way of changing the behaviour of the hostage-taker, and to shift the emotional environment of the crisis just enough so that they can secure the safety of everyone involved.
If indeed you don’t get what you deserve, only what you ask for, you have to ask correctly. So, claim your prerogative to ask for what you think is right.
The centrepiece of this book is ‘Tactical Empathy’, and it works. This doesn’t involve agreeing with the other person’s values and beliefs or giving out hugs - that’s sympathy.
Tactical Empathy is contingent on active listening – listening hard and doing so in a relationship-affirming way. Active Listening involves techniques such as Labelling, Mirroring, Accusation Audit, silences and more. I will address only a few.
Labelling is repeating your counterpart’s perspective back to them. You will be able to disarm your counterpart’s complaints by repeating them aloud. Labels almost always begin with the same words: It seems like … It looks like… It sounds like … and not “I’m hearing that …” The word “I” gets people’s guard up.
There is enough research that indicates that the best way to address negativity is to observe it, without reaction and without judgement. Then label the negative feeling and replace it with positive, compassionate, and solution-based thoughts. “You seem disappointed that the price you were expecting to achieve is being rejected…” Then listen encouragingly so a solution can be found.
There are three voices that are useful in a negotiation; one Voss calls the “late-night, FM DJ voice”: it is non-threating, soft, and calming. Talk that starts with “I’m sorry …” and a soft smile, makes people more open to creative solutions because their brains are not freezing in fear or anger.
“Mirroring” is feeding back to your counterpart what they have just said. Not the body language. Not the accent. Not the tone or delivery. Just the words. Sometimes repeating only the last three words or the critical one to three words of what someone has just said, will produce the desired effect. Your counterpart will inevitably elaborate, and even reveal more information that will further fuel the negotiation. Mirrors work magic.
By affirming what you are hearing, you are showing you understand (not support or concur with) your counterpart’s worldview.
'That’s right' vs 'you’re right'
“It seems like you want us to let you go.” Or “It seems like you don’t want to go ahead with the sale under these conditions.” When they can say to you “That’s right…” you have connected in a meaningful way that will allow for the exploration of other options. If they had said, “You’re right…” more often than not, they are fobbing you off.
“I always try to reinforce the message that being right isn’t the key to a successful negotiation - having the right mindset is,” Voss explains. Negotiation is not a battle between opposing forces.
By doing an accusation audit in advance, you can often surface their concern upfront and eliminate it. When teaching negotiation, Voss invites students to roleplay. Knowing what is going to bother them, he introduces the process with: “In case you’re worried about volunteering to roleplay with me in front of the class, I want to tell you in advance … it’s going to be horrible…
"(But) those of you who do volunteer will probably get more out of this than anyone else.” The response is always positive.
By listing every terrible thing your counterpart could say about you, you can address it, with playful seriousness, and elicit the useful ‘That’s right…’ reponse.
“In the decades since my initiation into the world of high-stakes negotiations, I’ve been struck again and again by how valuable these seemingly simple approaches can be. The ability to get inside the head - and eventually under the skin - of your counterpart depends on these techniques and a willingness to change your approach, based on new evidence, along the way.”
This is a remarkably engaging book which reads like a novel, complete with reports of Voss’s gripping experiences chosen to highlight what he teaches. This is a must-read for anyone whose work involves negotiation. For those who are not so engaged, read it anyway even if your most serious negotiation is your noisy neighbour or getting a seat on a “fully booked” flight.
Readability: Light --+-- Serious
Insights: High +---- Low
Practical: High +---- Low
* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.