Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depends on It

I read the book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depends on It, by Chris Voss, on the advice of an acquaintance. He recommended it based on my review of The Secret of Selling Anything.

It never ceases to amaze me how people can get totally different things from a book. Two people can spend hours reading the same book and come to completely different conclusions about it when finished.

After reading, Never Split the Difference, I was left scratching my head. How did the author manage to get 25k+ five-star reviews from such a mediocre book?

Chris Voss’ TEDx Talk on: Never Split the Difference

The Art of Negotiation (under the threat of violence)

The book is about the art of negotiation, written by a former FBI hostage negotiator. In the book, Voss shills his so-called negation tips.

To my mind, his negotiation strategies are ultimately backed by the firepower and use of force of the FBI. How much easier would it be to get what you want out of a negotiation when you’ve got snipers with guns pointed at your adversary?

Maybe a better title would be, Never Split the Difference; Or Else.

War Stories

Voss seeks to awe and inspire by telling gristly tales about negotiations where Voss succeeded in getting what he wanted.

Most of the stories he tells are open to multiple interpretations. Voss chooses the one that fits his idiosyncratic narrative.

For example, he tells how he was able to talk some bad guys with guns out of a bank robbery. For six hours, he spoke in a low, mild-mannered voice: “you’re afraid you’ll go to jail, you’re afraid you’ll get shot.” After six hours the bad guys came out, telling him that they were so annoyed with his voice, they decided to give up.

Voss tells us that it was the tone of his voice and his ability to interpret the bad guy’s inner thoughts that made them give up. The truth is, the guys were trapped like rats. They had no way out. They did the rational thing and gave up after several hours of deliberation. It had nothing to do with Voss’ tactics.

The thing that was useful was Voss’ patience, not his tone of voice. He allowed some space between the more aggressive members of his unit who might have wanted to burn the place down.

Cognitive Bias Oh My!

Whenever an author starts talking about cognitive bias, I know what comes next. It’s a tired and familiar game. Name drop Kahneman and Tversky. Explain how humans are emotional and irrational. Now we’re off to the races!

You’ll notice how authors call their ideas theories, while they call the ideas of others they disagree with biases. Neat trick, isn’t it?

Voss says: If you can understand your opponent’s irrational thinking you can use it to your advantage.

But if we are irrational, how can specific tactics work? You’d never know what to expect.

Humans have reasons for acting the way they do. It is our job as listeners to understand those reasons.

I think that this is what Voss does intuitively. The problem is with the way he couches his language in the popular vernacular of the day known as the science of cognitive bias.

The underlying message should’ve been made clear: seek to understand your opponent, not to discover a their bias.

The Main Message: Listen

Voss has lots of tactics. But, they all come down to listening and asking questions. His main message for negotiating well is to listen intently and ask good questions. Try to uncover your adversaries’ motivations.

Listening is hard. It is active. It takes work.

When we seek to listen, we can begin to understand. Like reading a novel, we have to carefully read the entire story to get the full picture.

The book came down to learning to listen. It could’ve been written in about five or ten pages. I learned more about listening from a short book called, I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships.

Don’t waste your time with this book. I learned more from Voss by listening to his interview with Mark Cuban, linked below. Cuban takes a more nuanced approach to negotiation.

Mark Cuban on Negotiation with Chris Voss

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