No Dark Magic

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Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It by Chris Voss

Posted at — Mar 4, 2020

TL;DR: advice from a former FBI negotiator. Focus on your counterpart, deeply. Make it clear that you listen. Use silence. Open-ended questions instead of “no”. Say you’re an asshole before they do. Differentiate between “yes (just so that you shut up)” and “yes (I will actually do this)”. When someone seems crazy, look for misinformation, unknown desires, and external constraints.

The first chapter is 80% typical boasting and can be safely skipped. One of the messages there is that approaching negotiations from an academic standpoint and treating people as perfectly rational agents does not lead to success in real life.

The rest of the chapters bring in a variety of cases from both FBI work and the author’s consultancy and teaching. The lessons are:

  • listen to your counterpart to understand what they need and to spot any other helpful information; focus on them and pay attention to their body language too

  • make it clear that you listen by repeating or summarizing what your counterpart just said — and don’t add anything on top from yourself, let them speak more

  • use a deep, soft, slow, friendly voice to relax people

  • “assumptions blind, hypotheses guide” — expect to not know something, and you’ll find it easier not to stick to a busted myth in your head

  • call out your counterpart’s possible fears to diffuse them, and call out your counterpart’s possible problems with you (“You might think I’m treating you unfairly”) before they do to show understanding at least and getting your counterpart to deny them at most

  • being too pushy and only listening to yourself might bring you a “yes” during a conversation, but if it wasn’t genuine, it will turn into a no, endless postponing, sabotage, and so on; it’s better to get to the “no” during the conversation (which makes your counterpart feel more in control) and work with it

  • “fair” is a special word for negotiations, it carries a big emotional charge and might put you on the defensive; don’t concede, ask them instead to explain how exactly you mistreat them

  • invite your counterpart to share more information and to work on a solution by asking open-ended questions (starting with “what” and “how”, but preferably not “why” — that’s often accusatory) instead of saying no, getting aggressive, or asking yes/no questions which put you in an unfavorable reciprocity dynamic

  • make sure you’re actually talking to the people who make the decisions and are affected by them, or that those people are somehow involved; otherwise the agreement you reach will mysteriously fall through

  • always look for the “unknown unknowns” aka black swans

  • when your counterpart seems to be acting completely irrationally, chances are you don’t know something, or they don’t know something, or they want something you don’t know about, or they can’t do what they think they can.

There was also a walk-through of the Ackerman model:
1. Come up with your target (e.g. price you’re willing to pay for a car). Make it a non-round number to give it credibility and weight.
2. First offer to your counterpart — extreme anchor: 65% of your target.
3. Get a counter-offer by whatever conversation necessary, e.g. saying “Your offer is generous and I wish I could afford it but I can’t”.
4. Offer 85%, 95%, and then 100% of your target — note the shrinking steps.

And in one of the last chapters there was also a discussion of different negotiation styles like Accommodator, Assertive, and Analyst (for whom time is relationship, time is money, and time is preparation, respectively), but I couldn’t find any insights there.


Persuasion is not about how bright or smooth or forceful you are. It’s about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea. So don’t beat them with logic or brute force. Ask them questions that open paths to your goals. It’s not about you.

As you try to insert the tools of tactical empathy into your daily life, I encourage you to think of them as extensions of natural human interactions and not artificial conversational tics. […​] creating an empathetic relationship and encouraging your counterpart to expand on their situation is the basis of healthy human interaction. These tools, then, are nothing less than emotional best practices that help you cure the pervasive ineptitude that marks out most critical conversations in life. They will help you connect and create more meaningful and warm relationships. That they might help you extract what you want is a bonus; human connection is the first goal.

Useful questions:
“What about this doesn’t work for you?”
“What would you need to make it work?”
“Have you given up on this project?” (after some ignored emails)
“How am I supposed to do/accept that?”
“What are we trying to achieve here?”
“When you originally approved this, what did you have in mind?”

Despite the amount of boasting and cheap shocking tactics (for example starting a chapter with “We’ve got your son, give us a million dollars or he dies”), the book betrays the vast amount of experience the author has. It is the book’s best and worst trait at the same time. Why it’s the best is obvious, and as for the worst, I believe that too much context has been lost in putting this experience into a book to be really actionable.

Someone might have great questions to ask and numbers to put forward but botch the deal just because of the delivery, which could be a subject of its own book. Likewise, “pay attention to your counterpart’s body language”, for instance, is very valid advice for all I know, but what good is paying attention to it if you don’t know how to interpret it?

I have a suspicion that a book telling about just a handful of the mentioned cases, giving each of them enough time to unfold and showing all the surrounding context as well as the author’s thought process would be more enjoyable and educational than “talk anyone into anything in 10 easy steps”.


(274 pages, ISBN: 9781847941497, Worldcat, Open Library)

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