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Never Split the Difference

How to negociate ? The author was working for the FBI as an hostage negociator. He has a lot of past experience, shared in this book. When negociating in tough situation, you don't talk to rationality. See "thinking fast and slow" - you talk to the "fast" part. You need to know your adversary, to make him talk about the true issue, to get a win-win (at least, to make it think it is). Authority is not an argument neither. Keep it cool, get human, don't get angry, take the time. This book is well illustrated, with concrete examples.

Never split the difference

Chris Voss, 2016

The author was an hostage negotiator of the FBI. He presents the different things he learned during his carrier to deal with tough situations.

A chapter is mostly a story, with the strategy highlighted in. The chapter ends up with a list of key-points and lessons he learned.

Table of Content

  1. New rules
  2. Be a Mirror
  3. Label-it
  4. Master “no”
  5. Two words
  6. Bend their reality
  7. Create the illusion of confidence
  8. Guarantee execution
  9. Bargain hard
  10. Find the black swan

Chapter 1 - The New Rules

Chapter 1 explains the evolution of negotiation, illustrated with the different hostage disasters that happened in the US.

Daniel Kahneman, which introduced the field of behavioral science, identified two reasoning systems:

  • System I, which is fast and emotional
  • System II, which is slow and rational

(See Thinking fast and slow.)

On previous hostage negotiation, defenders were talking to the attackers using rational ideas, while the attackers under stress are using the emotional system. This approach didn’t work. You don’t speek with the heart using rational arguments.

All the research that have been done by the FBI is to learn how to answer “as if” it was system 1, but using system 2 to deal with the kidnappers.

Chapter 2 - Be a Mirror

Smart people (with PhD, genius, …) have trouble being negotiators, because they are too rational. They think they are the smartest, they have good arguments, so they don’t listen to the others.

The two first advises are:

  • Empathy: learn to listen to the other party. Otherwise, it is like having two discussions at the same time.
  • Open-ended questions: it lets the other side think that they have the control (because they are free to answer and to orient the conversation). This is not that easy because the set of answers is very large.

Next, the author suggest slowing down. One of the idea is to get a calm voice. As when you say “hello”, the other send you an “hello” by mimic, speak calmly will influence the other, understanding that is angry tone is unappropriated. This allows to move the opponent to system 2 by calming its anger, allowing him to think rationally. Also, it gives you an authoritative power: you are undisturbable.

Mirroring, where you repeat the last sentence of your adversary, to get more info, give you time, and make the other exposes its strategy. It shows also your interest, your involvement into the negotiating process.

Chapter 3 - Don’t Feel their Pain, Label it

This is all about feelings. You cannot separate people and their feelings. Feelings are the problem you need to deal with.

People want to be understood. Try to label how they feels, without putting you in the middle of the room:

“It sounds like you are angry because of xx”. (which is better than “I think you are angry …”, which is more assertive).

Label feeling respectfully, calmly so you can cool down angry people. People won’t fire at you because you try to label their emotion. They will mostly say if you’re right or wrong.

Exercices of negociation: “60 seconds or she dies”.

Chapter 4 - Beware “Yes” - Master “No”

This chapter is difficult mastering.

Telemarketers usually try to make you say “yes” at all their questions by asking dummy questions you cannot say “no”. This make you unable to refuse, but uncomfortable because you don’t know where you are going. However, this strategy doesn’t work anymore because people are tired of it.

Instead, it is better to ask question that would lead to a “no”, so the adversary can argument, detail, and allow to engage himself in the conversation.

Chapter 5 - Trigger the Two Words that Immediately Transform any Negociation

Try to get your opponent says “that’s right”, to agree on a belief. However, if you obtain “you’re right”, that’s a bad sign, he wants to stop the discussion.

Chapter 6 - Bend their Reality

Introduces the idea of fairness. To stop the bargaining of a price that is not what you expect, you can claim “fairness”.

Splitting the bill: The author takes a funny image. What if you wear one red and one blue shoes ? So you can please your wife ? This is worse than anything.

This chapter also discusses (small part) about salary negociation. It is better to let the other party (your boss) propose first his number. It allows to get an anchor, to see where you can move. Take your time to speak about the future achievement you will need to make:

  • A bonus is to reward the past work you have done (patents, or any other extra )
  • A salary increase is to reward your future work. If it is not different from today, than why a salary increase ?

Talk about what you will do, why it is worth it, and after the discussion, add your numbers.

Odd numbers help. If you say I want 100k, 120k, this is understood as “around”. I can give you 95k because I am bargaining. If you say, “I want 121k”, it’s like a magic number, as if you have a very good reason, you made some complex calculation to get it.

Chapter 7 - Create the Illusion of Confidence

There are clues to make open-ended questions:

  • Do not use “is/are”, “can”, …
  • Use “How/When/Why/What/Where..”

That’s a start, now you need to orient the question to your advantage. These questions are called “Calibrated questions””. They make the adversary feel they are in control, because they can answer extensively, while it is you that select the question. Better to prepare them in advance.

Of course, you need control. Let the passion dissipate, avoid emotional answer, keep cool.

Chapter 8 - Guarantee Execution

How to check liars ? You have to learn it. Liars may speak about other people, “he/she/it/their/the other guys/…”, not “my/I”, so they are not in control of the thing, so they cannot tell you more. (The idea is more “someone you can put a name on it/ you can easily reach” to verify the information. “he/the others” ghost the names).

Also, to support its facts/lies, he may speak longer to create a beautiful story around. “I have a Louis Vuitton bag” vs “I have a Louis Vuitton bag, but I lent it to my aunt, so I cannot show it now for the moment…”. See the difference.

If you hear some hesitation, ask for clarification “Are you okay ? It seems that you are hesitating”.

When negociating with an unknown person, saying your name “I am Japoneris”, it may help to humanize you. A fun example in the book to try, after a discount refusal is “My name is Chris. What’s the Chris’ discount ?”

Chapter 9 - Bargain Hard

Chapter into two parts:

First one is about the personality types:

  • analyst, slow, try to obtain the best result, prefer to work on their own. Take note of the details. Take a few days to answer, silence is a good sign for them.
  • accommodator, in the relationship, friendly, free-flowing, want to be friend forever. They want to know you, good at making open question
  • Assertives: time is money, fiery people. Do not try to get perfect, but try to make things done. Bad listen ability. They want to be heard

This three personna are the main types you could encounter. You understand better the person of the same type than you. But you cannot loose 66% of the deal. You need to learn this personna to handle each case.

Second part is a story, of one of his student who had to negociate his rent. The author introduce a rule to progressively move to your objective. 65 - 80 - 95 - 100. This is to fool your adversory, that you are making some efforts (if you select a very low or high anchor).

Chapter 10 - Find the Black Swan

Black swan are “any thing” that you have never seen not heard of. Unbelievable event that happen.

Otherwise, this chapter doesn’t add any more to the book.


At the start, I didn’t like it because of the stories all the time. But the advises wouldn’t be understandable.

I learned some stuff, but now I have to find how to practice.

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