For Business Negotiations, Chris Voss’ “Never Split the Difference” Has Unique Insights

A veteran FBI negotiator, Voss knows what to do when the stakes are high

July 25, 2023 | Denise Gifford

this is a photo of the book cover for "Never Split the Difference"The type of negotiating most of us do in our lifetimes doesn’t include life or death situations. We negotiate the mundane, like children’s bedtimes, or the important, like salaries or business contracts. So it’s intriguing to get a look at how “real” negotiators in harrowing circumstances operate. How do they get to “yes”?

This question is answered at length in Chris Voss’ widely-read 2016 book, “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended On It.” Voss mines his expertise as an FBI negotiator and applies his insights to more common, everyday scenarios, arguing that high-stakes tactics can also be useful in everyday personal and professional negotiations.

Voss worked at the FBI for 24 years, eventually becoming the agency’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. He has seen countless life or death negotiations up close. In “Never Split the Difference,” he shows that the collaborative win-win strategies traditionally taught by business schools, based on the groundbreaking work of Harvard professors Roger Fisher and William Ury (“Getting to Yes”), among other similar approaches, are lacking. Voss is especially critical of these strategies in real-life intense negotiations, like the siege at Waco. “I mean, have you ever tried to devise a mutually beneficial win-win solution with a guy who thinks he’s the messiah?” asks Voss.

Instead, Voss and his colleagues at the FBI developed an adaptive approach to negotiating based on their tough experiences in hostage situations. Voss shares these strategies, writing, “being right isn’t the key to a successful negotiation: having the right mindset is.” Throughout ten chapters, he recounts riveting stories of FBI negotiations, as well as examples a little closer to home: those of his students in the negotiation classes he currently teaches. The book is written in a conversational style, making it an easy read. Each chapter ends with a “key learnings” list to bring home the important points.

It’s a rapid read when Voss is describing an FBI negotiating situation; the stories are full of tension and high stakes. It sometimes feels like an action movie script, in a good way. However, when Voss segues to talking about negotiating a business deal, the writing loses some momentum. This makes sense; everyday life is not as exciting. But the lessons from each negotiation story in the book share key strategic elements, and that’s the point.

The important principles that helped Voss and his colleagues successfully negotiate in high-stakes situations are described in detail, along with examples from real life to illustrate how they work (or sometime don’t work). One of the most compelling chapters has to do with a negotiation that went very wrong: with terrorists in the Philippines that ended in the death of a hostage. Why it went wrong, and how it got to be so convoluted, caused Voss and his team to do some soul-searching and to develop better strategies.

Among the book’s key lessons is the use of calibrated questions, where a phrase like “you can’t leave” is reframed as, “what do you hope to achieve by going?” These questions are open-ended, allowing you to gently nudge your counterpart towards the solution you want. Essentially, the negotiation becomes a problem-solving partnership, where the calibrated questions and the communication skills you use give your counterpart the illusion of control.

“The language of negotiation is primarily a language of conversation and rapport: a way of quickly establishing relationships and getting people to talk and think together,” writes Voss. He advocates that rather than “getting to yes,” you should be happy if you hear “no” because a “no” is better than a false “yes.” It can bring the communication pathway forward. Voss says that people dread hearing “no,” but great negotiators embrace it.

He goes into depth about the use of communication strategies, such as mirroring, paraphrasing, labelling, and summarizing, and how these can help build rapport and advance the negotiation. In fact, most of this book is about communication skills.

Although the title, “Never Split the Difference,” implies hardball tactics, Voss says that “negotiation is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery.” Splitting the difference is a mindset that “is usually ineffective and often disastrous. At best, it satisfies neither side.”

But it takes Voss a while to get to the all-important questions: how to decide how much to ask for? And what is the bottom line, after all? While the bargaining parameters in each case study are explained well, the reader is sometimes left wondering how they would come up with such concrete parameters in their own situations.

One helpful strategy Voss recommends is the Ackerman model, which is an offer-counteroffer method. However, this strategy is not mentioned until the latter part of the book, and could have been included earlier to better advantage. It’s a very helpful tool for framing the negotiation. Another helpful tool is provided in the book’s appendix: a negotiation “one-sheet” planner, which provides helpful guidelines for planning your own negotiation.

Negotiating is a difficult, unpredictable process, and there are never too many books and tools out there to help. Voss’ is a valuable one that highlights the importance of a flexible mindset that can adapt to all eventualities. As Voss says, the goal is to “get over the fear of conflict and encourage you to navigate it with empathy.” The insights you’ll get from “Never Split the Difference” will help you do that, and offer important, alternative approaches to negotiation strategy.

Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

“Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended On It”                          (paid link)      

 

  • facebook
  • twitter
  • linkedin
  • mix
  • reddit
  • email
  • print
  • About The Author
  • Denise Gifford is the managing editor of InfoWorks.com. She co-founded InfoWorks International, a consulting firm that trained thousands worldwide in project management, leadership, and related business skills. Prior to heading InfoWorks, Denise worked in sales and marketing management and as a consultant to the financial services industry. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.