Book Review: Never Split the Difference

Never Split the Difference is a book written by an ex-FBI hostage negotiator named Chris Voss. I first heard about the book through Farnam Street’s Knowledge Project podcast.

While you might think, “Negotiation is hard and uncomfortable, and I only need it when I’m buying a car,” you’re wrong. We’re constantly negotiating things throughout our lives.

More importantly, though, is that the this book isn’t so much about bargaining or haggling things like price. It’s a psychology book in disguise. It’s a relationship book in disguise. It’s a human connection book in disguise, and I was floored by it.

Voss introduces a series of tactics to help you uncover people’s motivations when they’re not even sure why they’re doing things themselves. You can imagine why this is a valuable skill in the world of hostage negotiation, when your counterpart is likely crazy. But as he describes in the book, you thinking “my counterpart is crazy” means you’ve not really made that connection and rooted out what’s in their head.

The tactics I’ve specifically taken were the way to ask questions, the emotional labeling, and the way to trigger mirror neurons.

First - how to ask questions. When I don’t understand something or somebody, I’m constantly asking “why.” “Why are you doing this?” “Why can’t you do that?” Voss explains that “why” questions most often put people in a defensive position, like their being attacked, and are less likely to open up to you. Detail questions, like “who,” “when,” and “where” generally get to small bits of information, but leave you few places to go afterwards. Binary questions - those with “yes” or “no” answers - give you only 1 bit of information and generally kill the flow of the conversation. As an engineer, I’m very guilty of asking very particular questions using “who,” “where,” “when,” and “is” types of questions.

His suggestion is to pivot to many more “what” and “how” kinds of questions. In particular, his favorite is “How am I supposed to do that?”, which helps rope your counterpart into problem solving with you. “What was it like to live in Paris?” will get you a longer, more detailed answer as opposed to “Did you like living in Paris?”

This probably sounds obvious to many people, and maybe how I’m explaining it makes it seem so, but it made a light bulb go off in my head. I’m not great at connecting with people, opening up to them or getting them to open up to me, so having specific strategies like this help a lot. I especially catch myself about to ask a binary question and rotate it to a more open ended one.

The second is emotional labeling - “it seems that you’re feeling frustrated because your kids aren’t listening” or “it sounds like you’re worried that your husband won’t be ready in order to leave on time.” I first stumbled across this technique in a parenting book - the idea to both teach kids emotional vocabulary and use it when those feeling come up within themselves. I had never thought to employ it in everyday conversation with adults.

The idea of putting a word on a feeling of someone else signals that you’ve not only listened to the words they’ve said, but how they’ve said it (maybe even synthesized with what they looked like as they said it). It means that you picked up on a message they might not even know they sent! Echoing that back to them can makes them feel like you’ve got it.

The third critical lesson is the mirroring technique - you repeat back to your counterpart the last 2-4 words they’ve said with an upward, questioning inflection. Consider these two interactions:

A: "What are you doing about the Smith case?"
B: "What do you mean?"
A: "The Smith case! What are you doing about it?"
B: "I don't know about any Smith case..."
A: "What are you doing about the Smith case?
B: "The Smith case?"
A: "The one with Paul, John, George, and Ringo?"
B: "Ahh - that's filed under the Beatles, not Smith. I'm doing...."

Ok, that’s a very contrived example, but it illustrates a simple point: when you repeat the last 2-4 words someone else said, they instinctively rephrase and expand upon it, sometimes giving you valuable clues and information. This tool is incredibly powerful, and it’s almost unnoticeable by the other party.

Why didn’t the “What do you mean?” response get the same reaction? That’s because saying “What?” or “What do you mean?” generally makes the other person just repeat what they said - usually just louder and more annoyed. I bet it’s pretty easy for you to think of a time when you’ve experienced this.

These three techniques, along with a few more and some interesting hostage rescue stories made me put this on my top 10 favorite business books. I recommend it for anyone looking more for a book on connecting with people rather than hardcore bargaining. However, as Voss says multiple times, to be a great negotiator is to make a connection with your counterpart first, and engage in problem solving, instead of thinking of the other person as your “opponent” that must be destroyed at all costs.