Ever wished to become a better, stronger negotiator? If your answer is yes, you’ve come to the right place.
Negotiating is tough, and while we all have to do it, some of us are better at it than others. In this book, you can learn the art of negotiation from the very best – in fact, the marketing spiel proudly boasts that it contains “a former FBBI negotiator’s field-tested tools for talking anyone into (or out of) just about anything.”
That former FBI negotiator would be Chris Voss, the book’s primary author, who’s put his skills to the test against bank robbers, gang leaders, kidnappers and terrorists. Following his time in the FBI, Voss went on to become “one of the preeminent practitioners and professors of negotiating skills in the world”. He’s the founder of The Black Swann Group and works with a range of clients including a number of Fortune 500 companies.
Here, he’s joined by award-winning journalist Tahl Raz, the co-author of New York Times bestseller Never Eat Alone. Raz himself is no stranger to negotiation, especially as he also tours the speaking and consultancy circuit. Together, they’re definitely the right people for the job, and indeed their book is a masterclass in the art and science of negotiation. Let’s dive in and see what they have to teach us in Never Split the Difference.
“Hostage taking,” Voss explains, “and therefore hostage negotiating, has existed since the dawn of recorded time. The Old Testament spins plenty of tales of Israelites and their enemies taking each other’s citizens hostage as spoils of war. The Romans, for their part, used to force the princes of vassal states to send their sons to Rome for their education, to ensure the continued loyalty of the princes.”
Negotiation has changed over time, and no longer are deals made at the points of swords. Still, many of the same principles hold true, whether we’re talking about antiquity or whether we’re talking about a merger meeting in a swanky boardroom. You can even see many of the concepts in your favourite books and movies, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones.
Voss says that life is negotiation, explaining, “The majority of the interactions we have at work and at home are negotiations that boil down to the expression of a simple, animalistic urge: I want.” He says that “I want you to free the hostages” might be more relevant to his own career, but there’s no shortage of real-world examples:
- I want you to accept that $1 million contract.
- I want to pay $20,000 for that car.
- I want you to give me a 10% raise.
- I want you to go to sleep at 9 PM.
One way to boost the chances of a successful negotiation is to practice becoming a mirror of the other person. This can mean reflecting their body language or following similar speech patterns. The way that we talk is hugely important, and it can have a big impact on the way that we’re perceived.
In fact, Voss has used this to his advantage during some of the most intense negotiations of his career. He explains, “Most of the time, you should be using the positive/playful voice. It’s the voice of an easy-going, good-natured person. Your attitude is light and encouraging. The key here is to relax and smile while you’re talking. A smile, even when talking on the phone, has an impact tonally that the other person will pick up on.”
Fortunately, if you’re struggling to make that happen, help is at hand thanks to Voss’s simple four-step guide to get you in the right place for negotiations:
1. Use the late-night FM DJ voice
2. Start with “I’m sorry…”
4. Silence of at least four seconds to allow the mirror to take effect
Voss starts this chapter with a story about when he was the primary negotiator in a tense situation in New York City with a SWAT team standing behind him. “In tense situations like this,” he explains, “the traditional negotiating advice is to keep a poker face. Don’t get emotional. Until recently, most academics and researchers completely ignored the role of emotion in negotiation. Emotions were just an obstacle to a good outcome, they said. ‘Separate the people from the problem’ was the common refrain.”
He continues, “Think about that: How can you separate people from the problem when their emotions are the problem? Especially when they’re scared people with guns. Emotions are one of the main things that derail communication. Once people get upset at one another, rational thinking goes out the window.”
The idea here, then, is that you can become a better negotiator by understanding the pain points for the people that you’re dealing with. Once we’re able to put a label on their pain, we can understand how best we can help them and look at the negotiation through their eyes, instead of through our own.
“At some point in their development,” Voss says, “all negotiators have to come to grips with ’no’. When you come to realize the real psychological dynamic behind it, you’ll love the word. It’s not just that you lose your fear of it, but that you come to learn what it does for you and how you can build deals out of it. ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ are often worthless. But ‘No’ always alters the conversation.”
Voss also teaches his readers the two words that can transform any negotiation: that’s right. The idea here is pretty simple – the aim is to show the person you’re negotiating with that you understand them. Communication is a vital skill when it comes to negotiation, and affirmation and confirmation can be an excellent way to establish a rapport.
Voss also gives us an excellent example of why we shouldn’t compromise, explaining, “Let me paint you an example. A woman wants her husband to wear black shoes with his suit. But her husband doesn’t want to: he prefers brown shoes. So what do they do? They compromise, they meet halfway. And, you guessed it, he wears one black and one brown shoe. Is this the best outcome? No! In fact, that’s the worst possible outcome. Either of the other two outcomes – black or brown – would be better than the compromise.”
One way to avoid compromise is to use time as an ally. If you’re dealing with someone who has a deadline or who needs to get the deal signed off as quickly as possible, you’ll essentially have the upper hand and have greater resistance to compromise. Voss also suggests the following steps to “bend their reality”:
1. Anchor their emotions
2. Let the other guy go first…most of the time
3. Establish a range
4. Pivot to nonmonetary terms
5. When you do talk of numbers, use odd ones
6. Surprise with a gift
Voss starts this chapter with a story about when one of his negotiations went drastically wrong. In fairness, it wasn’t necessarily because of anything that he did, but rather because he’s brought in to negotiate in high-risk situations and sometimes they escalate into firefights. Looking back on what went wrong, he realised something.
“From the ashes of Dos Palmas, then,” he says, “we learned a lesson that would forever change how the FBI negotiated kidnappings. We learned that negotiation was coaxing, not overcoming; co-opting, not defeating. Most important, we learned that successful negotiation involved getting your counterpart to do the work for you and suggest your solution himself. It involved giving him the illusion of control while you, in fact, were the one defining the conversation.”
Another important skill is knowing how to ask the right questions. He says that some of the standbys that he uses in any situation include:
- What about this is important to you?
- How can I help to make this better for us?
- How would you like me to proceed?
- What is it that brought us into this situation?
- How can we solve this problem?
- What’s the objective/what are we trying to accomplish?
- How am I supposed to do that?
The last question on this list is an important one, because it underscores the fact that negotiation is all well and good, but that it won’t take you anywhere if you don’t have a plan of action. For example, anyone can promise you every grain of sand in the world, but you wouldn’t take them at their word unless they had a pretty impressive plan to gather and deliver it all.
There are also different types of “yes” and “no”. “I’m positive that sometime in your life you’ve been involved in a negotiation where you got a ‘yes’ that later turned out to be a ‘no’,” Voss says. “Maybe the other party was lying to you, or maybe they were just engaged in wishful thinking. Either way, this is not an uncommon experience.” He says that this happens because there are actually three kinds of yes: Commitment, confirmation and counterfeit.
That’s why he suggests using the following tools to understand the how behind the yes:
- Ask calibrated “how” questions, and ask them again and again.
- Use “how” questions to shape the negotiating environment.
- Don’t just pay attention to the people you’re negotiating with directly; always identify the motivations of the players “behind the table”.
- Follow the 7-38-55 percent rule by paying close attention to tone of voice and body language.
- Is the “yes” real or counterfeit?
- A person’s use of pronouns offers deep insights into his or her relative authority.
- Use your own name to make yourself a real person to the other side and even get your own personal discount.
In the penultimate chapter of the book, Voss talks about bargaining hard, which he says can be boosted by adopting a “ready-to-walk mind-set” and not allowing yourself to be forced into a weak bargaining position. He also introduces the Ackerman model, a good way of ensuring that you don’t settle for a compromise:
- Set your target price (your goal).
- Set your first offer at 65% of your target price.
- Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85%, 95% and 100%).
- Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer.
- When calculating the final amount, use precise, non-round numbers like, say, $37,893, rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight.
- On your final number, throw in a non-monetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.
Voss says, “The genius of this system is that it incorporates the psychological tactics we’ve discussed – reciprocity, extreme anchors, loss aversion, and so on – without you needing to think about them.” It’s a great way to round off the book, and a reminder of how far Voss has come from his time in the FBI to his time advising some of the most well-respected business professionals in the world.
Now that you know how to negotiate like a pro, it’s over to you to put your newfound skills to good use. Being able to successfully negotiate is like having a superpower, and indeed it can make a huge difference to both your professional and your personal life. The principles that Voss shares here are versatile and easy to adapt, and you might be surprised when you start to see how often you rely on them to get a deal done.
Of course, there’s no way we could include absolutely everything that the two authors have to offer here, so if we’ve whetted your appetite, be sure to pick up a copy of Never Split the Difference and to give it a read. Take notes as you go and keep a printout of this blog post so that you can refer back to it. Then come back and let us know what you thought of it with a comment. We look forward to continuing the discussion.
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