Negotiating in the Real World

My notes and reflections from reading Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

James Edward Dillard
3 min readNov 2, 2020
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

One day a couple of months ago, it occurred to me that day that my job requires me to do a lot of negotiating. With this in mind, I decided I should invest some time in learning how to negotiate better. After looking around some online, I picked up Never Split the Difference. I’m really glad I decided to read this book. It provides practical instruction on how to negotiate that I’ve already been able to put into practice.

The author, Chris Voss, is a former FBI hostage negotiator and is clearly someone who has been personally involved in hundreds if not thousands of negotiations. This is what makes the book worth reading — Voss is like an expert mountain guide who can gives you not just advice on what route to take up the mountain, but how to wear your pack so it sits correctly on your back and what to bring with you so you stay warm and dry. It’s much less about grand negotiation strategy and much more about what to do when you’re in the thick of it and your heart starts pounding.

In the same way that the Jane Jacob’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities starts with how large a sidewalk should be and builds up into how to manage a thriving, growing, city, Never Split the Difference starts with how to listen (very closely, preferably with multiple people to compare notes) and talk in a negotiation. Not even what to say at the beginning, but literally the tone of voice you should use regardless of what you’re saying (Radio FM DJ voice).

From there, it moves into the building blocks of a conversation within a negotiation. One tactic that has stuck with me is mirroring, where you take a fragment of what someone said and repeat it back to them as a question (e.g., “as a question?”) so they feel the need to explain themselves. Another is labeling, where you attribute a thought or an emotion to your counter party (e.g., “It seems like you’re frustrated). I like those one because it can be used both to build rapport or to non-confrontationally confront an antagonistic counter party.

I think there’s a real benefit to the ground up style of teaching used in this book. The vast majority of negotiations I face in my job are not formal negotiations (e.g., over a salary), but informal ones (e.g., is Project A more or less important than Project B?). These informal negotiations are hard to apply a lot of conventional negotiating wisdom too; if this were a book only about how to haggle over the final price, I wouldn’t be able to use much of it. Mirroring and labeling, however, are things I’ve been able to work into my day-to-day already.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book are calibrated questions. Voss suggests using “How” questions rather than statements, as they make people less defensive. Instead of directly countering your counter party’s demand, you ask them a “How am I supposed to do that?” This shifts the terrain of the conversation, forcing them to negotiate against themselves and/or solve your problem for you. If you were to shorten the book down to a single sentence, it would be this: calmly ask your counter party how you’re supposed to take this deal rather than the one you want and wait for them to meet you there.

There’s much, much more in the book. The key words to listen for to know that your counter party feels heard (“That’s right”), his method for haggling in a salary-style negotiation (the Ackerman Method), and a fantastic trick for getting people who have gone cold to respond. If there’s a downside to this style, it’s that I feel like I’ll have to re-read the book in a year or two, after I’ve gotten more comfortable using some of the basic techniques, to get the most out of it. Definitely recommended!

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