Never Split the Difference [Book Review]

Never Split the Difference

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Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It
By Jonathan Roseland

Calling this a negotiator's manifesto would be selling it short, it's an ethical social engineer's guide to getting what you want in nearly every type of human interaction.

The book is written by a veteran FBI hostage negotiator, the different principles of negotiation are illustrated by cases from his career dealing with kidnappers, criminals, and terrorists around the globe along with examples applying the lessons learned in the business world.

Author Chris Voss
Author, Chris Voss

What is negotiating?

Negotiation serves two distinct, vital life functions—information gathering and behavior influencing—and includes almost any interaction where each party wants something from the other side. (p. 17)

Negotiation is the heart of collaboration. It is what makes conflict potentially meaningful and productive for all parties. (p. 21)

Ultimately, negotiation is...

“the art of letting someone else have your way.” (p. 169)

devils advocate negotiating meme 750
The devil is always negotiating. Shouldn't you be too?


Listening in negotiation is crucial and something that we are generally pretty bad at...

It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing. (p. 16)

Most people approach a negotiation so preoccupied by the arguments that support their position that they are unable to listen attentively. In one of the most cited research papers in psychology, George A. Miller persuasively put forth the idea that we can process only about seven pieces of information in our conscious mind at any given moment. In other words, we are easily overwhelmed. (pp. 27-28)

There is nothing more frustrating or disruptive to any negotiation than to get the feeling you are talking to someone who isn’t listening. (p. 51)

Listening allows you to uncover the "black swan" factors in the negotiation...

In every negotiation there are between three and five pieces of information that, were they to be uncovered, would change everything. (p. 21)

On active listening

There’s one powerful way to quiet the voice in your head and the voice in their head at the same time: treat two schizophrenics with just one pill. Instead of prioritizing your argument—in fact, instead of doing any thinking at all in the early goings about what you’re going to say—make your sole and all-encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say. (p. 28)

On effective mirroring

a “mirror” is when you repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. Of the entirety of the FBI’s hostage negotiation skill set, mirroring is the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick. Simple, and yet uncannily effective. (p. 36)

Tactical Empathy

When we closely observe a person’s face, gestures, and tone of voice, our brain begins to align with theirs in a process called neural resonance, and that lets us know more fully what they think and feel. (p. 53)

An empathy hack

Turn your attention to someone who’s talking near you, or watch a person being interviewed on TV. As they talk, imagine that you are that person. Visualize yourself in the position they describe and put in as much detail as you can, as if you were actually there. (p. 53)

I'm asked from time to time, how does one biohack empathy? Empathy is crucial to productive human interaction and you'll certainly profit from upgrading your empathy, there are two things I recommend. First, read fiction, as I discussed in my review of The Shallows, reading fiction or autobiographies places you in the heads of characters which exercises empathy in a way that listening to podcasts or watching videos does not. And secondly, meditation or mindfulness practice also upgrades empathy.


Often in a negotiation or argument, you'll be running up against the raw and irrational emotions of the other person. Instead of hitting back with your own emotions recognize and apply a label to their emotions.

...labeling an emotion—applying rational words to a fear—disrupts its raw intensity. (p. 55)

Research shows that the best way to deal with negativity is to observe it, without reaction and without judgment. Then consciously label each negative feeling and replace it with positive, compassionate, and solution-based thoughts. (p. 59)

Accusation Audit

You can take the sting out of the negatives or downsides of your proposal or objections to it by addressing them upfront. This will allay somewhat their concerns and mental roadblocks to reaching an agreement.

In court, defense lawyers do this properly by mentioning everything their client is accused of, and all the weaknesses of their case, in the opening statement. (p. 65)

Getting to No

You want to implicitly give your negotiating counterpart...

...permission to say “No” from the outset of a negotiation. He calls it “the right to veto.” He observes that people will fight to the death to preserve their right to say “No,” so give them that right and the negotiating environment becomes more constructive and collaborative almost immediately. (p. 78)

you can be sure that everyone you meet is driven by two primal urges: the need to feel safe and secure, and the need to feel in control. (p. 84)

Saying “No” gives the speaker the feeling of safety, security, and control. You use a question that prompts a “No” answer, and your counterpart feels that by turning you down he has proved that he’s in the driver’s seat. Good negotiators welcome—even invite—a solid “No” to start, as a sign that the other party is engaged and thinking. (p. 86)

Getting to "That's right."

the sweetest two words in any negotiation are actually “That’s right.” (p. 98)

Use a summary to trigger a “that’s right.” The building blocks of a good summary are a label combined with paraphrasing. Identify, rearticulate, and emotionally affirm “the world according to . . .” (p. 112)

This is an advanced pace-lead technique wherein you describe their position, concerns, and motivations to get them to agree and say the magic words that move the negotiation forward, that's right.

Slow down

Going too fast is one of the mistakes all negotiators are prone to making. If we’re too much in a hurry, people can feel as if they’re not being heard and we risk undermining the rapport and trust we’ve built. (p. 30)


Most of the time, you should be using the positive/playful voice. It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person. Your attitude is light and encouraging. The key here is to relax and smile while you’re talking. A smile, even while talking on the phone, has an impact tonally that the other person will pick up on. (p. 33)

The language of negotiation is primarily a language of conversation and rapport (p. 46)

If you are an Assertive, be particularly conscious of your tone. You will not intend to be overly harsh but you will often come off that way. (p. 197)

The late-night FM DJ voice:

Use selectively to make a point. Inflect your voice downward, keeping it calm and slow. When done properly, you create an aura of authority and trustworthiness without triggering defensiveness. (p. 47)

On body language

He visibly relaxed as he sat back in his chair and brought the top of his fingers and thumbs together in the shape of a steeple. Generally this is a body language that means the person feels superior and in charge. (p. 156)

There's an excellent 90-minute documentary on body language that I recommend.

Calibrated Questions

In negotiation, knowledge is power. You want to ask some calibrated questions to subtly push your counterpart into a more agreeable headspace.

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. (p. 141)

Giving your counterpart the illusion of control by asking calibrated questions—by asking for help—is one of the most powerful tools for suspending unbelief. (p. 150)

First off, calibrated questions avoid verbs or words like “can,” “is,” “are,” “do,” or “does.” These are closed-ended questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or a “no.” Instead, they start with a list of words people know as reporter’s questions: “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how.” Those words inspire your counterpart to think and then speak expansively. But let me cut the list even further: it’s best to start with “what,” “how,” and sometimes “why.” (p. 153)

Some questions to use

  • 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 here?
  • How am I supposed to do that?

For example

When you go into a store, instead of telling the salesclerk what you “need,” you can describe what you’re looking for and ask for suggestions. (p. 151)

Detecting Lies

In your negotiations, you're going to have to deal with lies. The book gives insight into some interesting research on lying...

In a study of the components of lying, Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra and his coauthors found that, on average, liars use more words than truth tellers and use far more third-person pronouns. They start talking about him, her, it, one, they, and their rather than I, in order to put some distance between themselves and the lie. And they discovered that liars tend to speak in more complex sentences in an attempt to win over their suspicious counterparts. It’s what W. C. Fields meant when he talked about baffling someone with bullshit. The researchers dubbed this the Pinocchio Effect because, just like Pinocchio’s nose, the number of words grew along with the lie. (p. 178)

Check out my podcast on lifehacking lying...

“How am I supposed to do that?”

This is the negotiator's question. As your counterpart makes demands engage their cognition by asking how you're supposed to accomplish what they are suggesting. For example, you'll be negotiating for something like a car, which the seller wants $20,000 for but your budget is only $15,000. You'll say something like, It is a nice car. My budget is only $15,000 because I'm going to college right now how am I supposed to pay $20,000? They'll offer to split the difference and sell it to you for $17,500. Stick to your guns, say: Well, you're being very generous. I'm sorry my budget is only $15,000. How am I supposed to pay $20,000 and afford my higher education?

What is Leverage?

In theory, leverage is the ability to inflict loss and withhold gain. (p. 220)

The party who feels they have more to lose and are the most afraid of that loss has less leverage, and vice versa. To get leverage, you have to persuade your counterpart that they have something real to lose if the deal falls through.(p. 221)

 Black Swans are the Gamechanger

Black Swans, those hidden and unexpected pieces of information—those unknown unknowns—whose unearthing has game-changing effects on a negotiation dynamic. (p. 214)

I began to hypothesize that in every negotiation each side is in possession of at least three Black Swans, three pieces of information that, were they to be discovered by the other side, would change everything. My experience since has proven this to be true. (p. 218)

Black swan meme

The black swans are in their "craziness". Often in negotiation, we'll get exacerbated and think (or say privately) they're crazy! They are being totally irrational! What we see as irrational is often the rustling of the feathers of their black swans; the things that we don't know about that the negotiation actually hinges on.

Know Their Religion

The book illustrates with a great example the importance of tailoring your approach and language to appeal to the worldview and ideology of your counterpart. You can reach great game-changing rapport by...

understanding the other side’s worldview, their reason for being, their religion. Indeed, digging into your counterpart’s “religion” (sometimes involving God but not always) inherently implies moving beyond the negotiating table and into the life, emotional and otherwise, of your counterpart. (p. 225)

Negotiating Price

Ackerman bargaining (p. 206), is the pro negotiator's formula for arriving at the optimal price.

The systematized and easy-to-remember process has only four steps:

  1. Set your target price (your goal).
  2. ​Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target price.
  3. ​Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95, and 100 percent).
  4. Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer.
  5. When calculating the final amount, use precise, nonround numbers like, say, $37,893 rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight. 
  6. On your final number, throw in a nonmonetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.

Negotiation is not logical

In other words, while we may use logic to reason ourselves toward a decision, the actual decision making is governed by emotion. (p. 122)

Another simple rule is, when you are verbally assaulted, do not counterattack. Instead, disarm your counterpart by asking a calibrated question. (p. 159)

Loss is a greater motivator

Loss Aversion, which shows how people are statistically more likely to act to avert a loss than to achieve an equal gain. (p. 12)

The F-word: Fair. 

Here’s how I use it: Early on in a negotiation, I say, “I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly at all times. So please stop me at any time if you feel I’m being unfair, and we’ll address it.” (p. 125)

We're all concerned with fairness but fairness means different things to different people. It's often counterproductive to claim that you are being fair and they are being unfair. Instead of saying, well I'm offering you a very fair price! Ask them a question that they can say no to (giving them a sense of control), and find a way to ask, how am I supposed to do that?

Strategic Umbrage

And so when someone puts out a ridiculous offer, one that really pisses you off, take a deep breath, allow little anger, and channel it—at the proposal, not the person—and say, “I don’t see how that would ever work.” (p. 202)

expressions of anger increase a negotiator’s advantage and final take. Anger shows passion and conviction that can help sway the other side to accept less. (p. 202)

Name your range

In a recent study, Columbia Business School psychologists found that job applicants who named a range received significantly higher overall salaries than those who offered a number, especially if their range was a “bolstering range,” in which the low number in the range was what they actually wanted. (p. 131)

Never split the difference

I’m here to call bullshit on compromise right now. We don’t compromise because it’s right; we compromise because it is easy and because it saves face. We compromise in order to say that at least we got half the pie. Distilled to its essence, we compromise to be safe. Most people in a negotiation are driven by fear or by the desire to avoid pain. Too few are driven by their actual goals. So don’t settle and—here’s a simple rule—never split the difference. (p. 116) 


This book follows the anecdote, principle, and data format that I enjoy reading. I'd recommend this book to almost anybody and especially salespeople and entrepreneurs because the social dynamics principles in it are timeless and will add a heightened degree of tranquility to your interactions and dealings.

I'm going to put this on my short list of must-reads for mastering social dynamics along with Pitch AnythingThe 2AM Principleand The 48 Laws of Power.

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The 2AM Principle
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The 48 Laws of Power
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Never Split the Difference [Book Review]
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Chris Voss
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I did a cheeky book review podcast discussing the book with my wife. Here is us and our dog…


Never Split the Difference
Author, Chris Voss


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Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It
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