This is my review of Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss. This is a book on negotiation and it’s written by the former head negotiator of the FBI. So the credentials are quite good, and I think the author delivers.

I’m actually reading two other books on the topic of negotiation - the classic “Getting To Yes” and “Getting More”. I’ll of course do reviews of the other two, and I’ll probably do a comparative one at the end. But this one stood apart first because of the author and then on its focus on “getting your way”.

In short Chris Voss was in charge of negotiating with terrorists and other nasty groups for the release of hostages. It’s a very different setting than a regular business setting - the stakes are much higher. And you definitely have to fully win. If a hostage taker is asking for $10M you can’t get to a satisfactory $8M. Rather you need to get it to a $0! So this influences his approach immensely. The main idea is to use various “mental tricks” to get the other side to go your way. So it’s a far cry from the traditional “middle-ground” and “win-win” situation many other books advertise.

The main idea however is to fully understand what your counterpart wants, which is a common theme in negotiations. The first chapter focuses on this, and on ways to get that - mostly through active listening and speaking with a very comfortable and friendly voice.

The second chapter focuses on tactical emphathy. You can use the tools of mirroring (repeating what the other says) and labeling (classifying what the other says, often in a compassionate way).

The third chapter is about triggering “No” from your counterpart. A “yes” is often a fake commitment, and many times is a means to stop the negotiation. Whereas a “No” means you’ve actually hit on some valuable information from the other party, some constraint they have and can’t break. There’s a bunch of tricks for forcing this “no” even if the other is avoiding it.

The fourth chapter is about getting a “that’s right”. Not a “yes”, which was established as fake, but a real concession of a point. Using summaries makes this work.

The fifth and sixth chapters are more about controlling the flow of the negotiation. It’s more about tactics here - anchoring gets discussed, avoiding “fairness”, triggering loss-aversion, etc. Perhaps the biggest trick though is asking “calibrated questions”, which are like “how can I do that?” or “what can we do to trigger the effect?”, and realistically ask the other party for help on your problem.

The seventh chapter is about making sure the outcome of a negotiation actually gets implemented. Again, there’s a bunch of tips like following body language and asking “How” questions to make sure “Yes”-es are not counterfeit. The eight chapter is actually about bargaining. Here the advice is to bargain hard, and be really aggressive with the offer. Backing it up with data helps, but even aggressiveness can payoff by itself. Again, given the background this is to be expected.

The final chapter is about “black swans”. These are key pieces of information the other part has which radically change the course of the negotiation. Sometimes they might not even know they’re black swans for you. One of the goals of the negotiations is to find out these things.

Anyway, the book is short, and is well worth a read. The tricky part, of course, is putting this thing in practice. The rules seem simple, but actually implementing them requires a lot of practice, and changing a lot of assumptions and behaviours. Tricky stuff.