“Never Split the Difference” Review: How to Negotiate Better

by Scott Crabtree

What happens to your brain when you hear or read the word “negotiation?” If you are anything like me (and many people), your heart rate quickens, and you might get a pit in your stomach or feel your shoulders tense up. Why would I even review a book on negotiating—specifically, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended On It, by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz—for Happy Brain Science?

Because as this excellent and fascinating book reveals, there can be empathy, understanding, taking care of people, and even joy in negotiations. This book is ultimately more about emotional intelligence and effective listening than it is about anything else. These are research-based, data-informed lessons we can all apply to improve our lives.

At first, when my speaker mastermind group said that we would be reading and discussing Never Split the Difference, I was dreading it.

Then I started reading. I was immediately hooked by compelling, adrenaline-filled stories. Chris Voss’ experience was leading hostage negotiations for the FBI. He brilliantly relays how to apply everything he learned in those high-stakes negotiations, in intense situations like bank robberies and kidnappings.

Along the way, we come to realize that we negotiate every day: with our loved ones, friends, colleagues, clients, and more. And he teaches us how being a better listener (and more empathetic) can not only make us much more pleasant discussion partners, but also much more effective in reaching our goals.

Tips to help you never split the difference

While I highly recommend that virtually everyone read this book, I’ll summarize the most important points here.

Chapter 1: The New Rules

Negotiating begins with listening. Most of us can dramatically improve how we listen. Who has the power in a negotiation: the person talking, or the person listening? Chris Voss argues that of course it’s the listener, because they are getting more information that they can put to use.

Of course, he advises active listening, where we show a sincere desire to fully understand what the other side is saying, thinkingand most importantly, feeling. 

Chapter 2: Be a Mirror

Mirroring is a way of making people feel more comfortable and safer. Try repeating the last three wordsor the most important three wordsof what someone just said. Make the speed and pitch of your voice somewhat similar to theirs. Even subtly mimic their physical movements.

You may be thinking what I was thinking when I first learned about mirroring techniques decades ago in a workshop: How manipulative! How weird! People are going to notice! But they don’t notice, so it’s not weird. I’ve intentionally mirrored people hundreds of times since founding Happy Brain Science in early 2012, and I’ve never had anyone indicate that they picked up on it.

Mirroring is an intentional way of behaving in order to have a specific effectin this case, taking action to help another person feel more at ease. In general, the techniques in this book are quite purposeful, and they could be used manipulatively. However, I would only advocate using these techniques for achieving a win/win common good. In my own negotiations, I focus on the fact that my mission is to find ways to spread the science of well-being in the world.

I’m assuming that since you are reading this, you are a good person interested in spreading happiness and well-being as well. Of course, I urge you to only use the techniques in this book for good.

Chapter 3: Don’t Feel Their Pain, Label It

What is neural resonance, and how do you get it? Neural resonance is when mirror neurons are working, so you are feeling what someone else is feeling. How can you make that neural resonance happen? By very closely taking in not just what a person is saying, but how they are saying it. It happens when you’re intently watching the other person’s face and picking up on non-verbal cues. You’re noticing their body language, as well as the words coming out of their mouth. And you’re probably mirroring at least some of what you’re taking in.

When you believe you understand how your discussion partner might be feeling, you label itBut as I say in my workshop STOP SHOUTING! Collaboration through Candid Conversation, you should never tell anyone else how they feel. Virtually everyone hates having someone tell them how they feel. But almost everyone loves feeling validated. So instead of telling, ask. Or make tentative statements that start with phrases like:

  • “It seems like….”
  • “It sounds like…”
  • “So is it true that…”

Psychological research tells that that people need to “feel felt“; they want to be understood and appreciated. If you can help your negotiation counterpart feel understood, you are on the way to a much better discussion.

Chapter 4: Beware “Yes”Master “No”

If Never Split the Difference didn’t contain any surprises, it wouldn’t be very helpful. Intentionally trying to get a “no” from your negotiating counterpart is a surprisingand very helpfulpiece of advice.

Voss argues that getting some kind of “yes” is quite easy, but not always meaningful. Has anyone ever given you a “yes” but not really meant it? It’s certainly happened to me many times. Trying to get people to say “yes” can make them feel cornered; you might be asking them questions that don’t really leave them a choice in how to respond.

But when someone says “no,” they feel in control. They feel they have some power. And it’s only when we feel safelike we have some power and controlthat we can effectively negotiate. When we feel psychological safety, we can draw on our best brain resources during negotiations. When we don’t feel safe, we go toward the fight or flight response. Our sense of options gets narrower, and our reactions are typically less constructive.

Voss offers one specific suggestion that he claims works almost every time. If you’ve got someone who isn’t responding to you, ask a question that invites a “no,” such as:

  • Do you want to give up on this project?

That one line (for instance, as the subject line of an email) almost always gets a “no”a great, helpful, empowering, and educational “no!”

Chapter 5: Trigger the Two Words that Immediately Transform Any Negotiation

“That’s right!”

Those two words can powerfully transform a negotiation. When you hear those two words, you know you’ve deeply understood the other side, and they feel understood and appreciated. Note that it’s exactly those two words you are going for. “You’re right” isn’t nearly as powerful a phrase. The other person may be acknowledging your point, even if they don’t like it. Conversely, “That’s right” indicates that you have understood them, which is a more powerful step toward a successful negotiation.

Chapter 6: Bend Their Reality

This chapter shares some of the fascinating science of behavioral economics and prospect theory. (There’s more potential for manipulation here, but we’ve established that we’ll only use these strategies to achieve win-win, mutual good!) The goal here is to influence what the other side considers fair. You can do that by appealing to cognitive biases such as:

  • Anchoring: The first number that is shared will “anchor” expectations; other numbers will be compared to that first one.
  • Loss Aversion: Losses hurt more than gains feel good. Figure out what the other side has to lose and nudge them to tap into that awareness.
  • Priming and Consistency Bias: Use words like “fair” and “generous” to describe the other person or their initial offers. They will want to live up to those important and desirable attributes.

Voss delivers many great tips in this chapterand throughout the bookthat take advantage of cognitive biases, such as using odd (not round) numbers, surprising people with a gift, and more. If you want to learn more but aren’t sure you want to read the whole book yet, this helpful summary offers additional details.

Chapter 7: Create The Illusion of Control

What is a “calibrated question?” And how can you use one to “let the other person have your way?” Voss explains that just as you can calibrate a weapon sight to help you hit your target, you can calibrate a question to achieve your goal. The best questions you can ask are the kind that get the other side thinking about how to solve your problem. They typically start with “what” or “how”:

  • How am I supposed to accept your proposal?
  • What is it that got us into this situation?
  • What about this is important to you?
  • How can we solve this problem?

Part of why I loved this book so much is that it connects toand is reinforced bya lot of other research and data. In our Happy Brain Science coaching practice, we’ve been trained to ask mostly open-ended (not pointed) questions. A pointed question, such as, “Why would you think that’s fair?” can feel like an accusation and cause the other person to become defensive or shut down. An open-ended, curious question, such as, “What have you already tried?” invites reflection and further discussion from the other person.

Use calibrated questions to give the other party a feeling of control, while getting them thinking about how to solve your problem at the same time!

Chapter 8: Guarantee Execution

This chapter of Never Split the Difference explores how to spot liarsand ensure follow-through from everyone else. It once again focuses on non-verbal communication as the key to understanding your counterpart’s real motivation.

One especially useful technique is to get your counterpart to say “yes” three different ways during your discussion. After they’ve said “yes” the first time, summarize or label what they’ve said to earn a, “That’s right!” from them. Then ask a calibrated “how” question to make progress toward implementation.

Chapter 9: Bargain Hard

Eventually, many negotiations come down to “brass tacks”; you’ll have to talk numbers. The key here is to be willing to walk awaydon’t be too needy if possible! If the other side is offering something that doesn’t work for you, try to shake things up. Switch to a topic other than money and ask about other parts of the deal. Use “I” statements to bring the focus back to you.

Combining several ideas we’ve covered, you might say, “That’s a fair and generous offer, and I wish I could accept it. But I just can’t given my situation. What else would you be able to offer to make this a good deal for me?”

For more detail, including a description of the Ackerman bargaining technique, I recommend the full book or this summary.

Chapter 10: Find the Black Swan

“Black Swans” areto author Chris Vosshidden, unexpected information that can completely change a negotiation. They’re “unknown unknowns.” You don’t know the information, and you don’t know that you don’t know it, let alone where to look for it.

How can you find these “Black Swans,” then, that might make or break your deal? You guessed it: open-ended questions and deep, active listening. It’s still easier said than donebut uncovering “Black Swans” is crucial to the success of your deal.

Summary: Read Never Split the Difference! Or even better, listen to it while exercising!

I may never love negotiating, but I do love this bookand it’s making me look forward to my next negotiation, whether it’s with my 6-year-old or a Fortune 50 client. I feel newly empowered with tips and tools. But even more important, I feel encouraged by a new mindset. I’m not trying to “win” negotiations. I’m not trying to get my points across. Most of all, I’m trying to listen, as deeply as I do during executive coaching, so I can really understand what the other person is feeling, and what they want and need. Then I can help them get what they need, while also influencing them to give me what I need, too.

Have you read Never Split the Difference? If so, what did you think? If you haven’t read it yet (but you want to), based on the science of learning and memory, I recommend getting it as an audio book and working out while you listen, as I did. Science suggests you’ll remember it better, so the knowledge is easy for you to access in your next negotiation.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below, connect with us through any of our social media channels, or contact us here.