Never Split The Difference

By: Chris Voss



“We’ve got your son, Voss. Give us one million dollars or he dies,”

Chris Voss had spent more than two decades in the FBI, and fifteen years negotiating hostage situations in places like New York, the Philippines and the Middle East.

But that was the strongest opening line he had ever had to face in a negotiation. That’s because he was at Harvard University sitting across the table from Robert Mnookin, the director of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

He was brought there to see how his field tested techniques would hold up against some of the world’s foremost negotiation experts.

“C’mon. Get me the money or I cut your son’s throat right now,” Mnookin said. Voss gave him a long stare, smiled, and then said “How am I supposed to do that?”

From there, Voss proceeded to dismantle the Harvard negotiators piece by piece by using the techniques he learned in the field.

As it turns out, the techniques that you’ll learn in Never Split the Difference are equally effective in the boardroom or on a sales call as they are in negotiating with terrorists.

Here’s how you can become a master negotiator by forgetting everything you know about negotiation.

The problem with old school negotiation

The biggest leap forward in negotiation theory came from a book published in 1979 called Getting To Yes. Ironically ,it was written by two researchers at the Harvard Negotiation Project - the same place Voss was invited to showcase his skills.

The main assumption was that the emotional brain - with its unreliability and irrationality - could be overcome by taking a rational, joint problem solving mindset.

But two guys in Chicago had other ideas. Amos Tversky was an economist and Daniel Kahneman was a psychologist. Together, they won a Nobel Prize by showing that man is indeed irrational and that feeling is a form of thinking. Basically, you cannot untangle the emotions from the man.

This has far reaching implications for everything you do in business. But until now, that groundbreaking finding hadn’t made it’s way into the mainstream thinking on negotiation. In particular, they proved that all humans suffer from Cognitive Bias, which distorts our view of reality. They discovered over 150 ways this is true (150!!!)

Kahneman wrote a best-selling book on the subject in 2011 called Thinking, Fast and Slow, which detailed their research. The essence of the book is that we have two systems of thought - System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional. System 2 is slow, deliberative and logical. While you might believe you make decisions with your logical mind, you actually make them with your emotional mind and then rationalise that decision after.

The entire essence of the model you are about to learn is that if you understand how to affect your counterpart’s emotions (his inarticulate feelings), you can guide them to make the logical conclusions you want them to without them even knowing what is happening.

This is powerful stuff, so I hope you are paying attention.

1. Mirroring

If you view negotiation as a battle of arguments, you’ll spend most of the time listening to the voice in our head. You’ll be coming up with counterarguments while your counterpart is speaking, and listening to your own voice while you are speaking.

But as a world class negotiator, that’s not what you’ll be doing at all. You know that your sole and all-encompassing focus is the other person, and what they have to say.

In order to get them comfortable opening up to you, you’ll need to start with the sound of your voice.

Your tone

There are three voice tones available to you. The late-night FM DJ voice (which is exactly what you think it is), the positive/playful voice, and the direct or assertive voice.

In almost every situation, you’ll want to start off by using the positive/playful voice. This is the voice of an easygoing, good natured person. The key is to relax and smile as you are talking - even on the phone.

Why? Because when people are in a positive frame of mind, they think quickly (and emotionally), and are more likely to collaborate with others. You’ll create this effect in both yourself and your counterpart by talking this way.

Now that you’ve got them in a relaxed state of mind, it’s time to start using one of the most powerful tools you’ll have in a negotiation - mirroring.


As Voss describes it, mirroring is essentially imitation. It’s a behaviour human beings and other animals use to comfort each other. You can mirror speech patterns, body language, vocabulary and tone of voice. In natural settings we don’t even recognise it happening - the only time you’ll re it is when a clumsy salesperson starts blatantly mimicking what you are doing.

In negotiation - and in particular at the FBI - the focus is only on the words. You repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) the other person just said. By repeating back what people say to you, you are triggering the mirror instinct and your counterpart will start elaborating on what was just said to continue connecting with you.

It’s effective to get your counterpart to continue talking, but it’s insanely effective to confront the other side without them feeling like their are being confronted.

There are four simple steps to this technique:

1. Use the late-night FM DJ voice.
2. Start with “I’m sorry.
3. Mirror.
4. Silence. Don’t talk for at least four seconds (which will feel like an eternity) for the mirroring to work its magic.
5. Repeat.

Something like, “I’m sorry, you want me to go to take on this additional project this week?”

2. Labelling

Emotions in negotiation are your friend - especially your counterpart’s emotions. The very best way of dealing with them is to bring them to the foreground of the conversation by labelling them.

You spot the emotion or feeling, turn it into words, and then calmly and respectfully repeat it back to them. Voss calls this tool tactical empathy. It helps you learn where the other side is coming from, why their actions make sense to them, and what might move them to see things your way.

There are two powerful reasons you want the other side to wrestle with their emotions.

First, psychological studies have shown that applying rational words to emotions activates a different part of their brain than the emotion itself. So if you get an angry person to think about the fact that they are angry, they will slow down and diffuse the intensity of the emotion.

Second, you are validating your counterpart’s emotion by labelling it.

Labelling should always start off with roughly the same words: it seems like… it sounds like… it looks like. Be sure never to use the word “I”, because that makes it seem like you are more interested in yourself and will get their guard up.

So, it might sound something like this:

“It sounds like you are angry about the price we charged you for this project.”

The last step, just like it was in mirroring, is silence. Resist the urge to expand on what you just said. Instead, let the silence do its work and listen to what they say next.

3. Get to No

Your goal at the beginning of the negotiation is to get to “no” as quickly as possible. Obviously you want to get to “yes” eventually, but most people make the mistake of trying to get there too quickly.

If you’ve ever found yourself on the phone with a telemarketer who has tried to ask you softball “yes” questions in order to get you to say yes to their sales pitch, you’ll know why this doesn’t work. “Do you care about children in Africa, Mrs. Smith?”

For world class negotiators like you, “no” is pure gold. There are a few reasons for this.

First, “no” doesn’t mean “never.” It usually means “I’m not ready to agree,” “you are making me feel uncomfortable,”, “I need more information.” or one of several other things.

Second, “no” clarifies what your counterpart actually wants. It’s much easier to come to an agreement when you start eliminating what they don’t want.

Lastly, and most importantly, it gives them a feeling of control. One of our universal needs as human beings is autonomy. We need to feel in control. When your counterpart understands that they have the permission to say “no” to your ideas, they calm down and are more receptive to the entire process.

In extreme cases, you might even want to force them into a “no” to get them to open up. For instance, you might intentionally mislabel one of their emotions or desires by saying something crazy like “It seems like you want this project to fail” - which of course can only be answered negatively.

4. “That’s right”

The turning point in any negotiation is when your counterpart feels understood, feels positively affirmed for that understanding, and they say the magical two words every negotiator wants to hear…”that’s right.”

Up until this point the only thing you’ve been doing is getting them to open up so you can understand exactly what they want, and why they want it. By saying “that’s right,” they feel like they’ve assessed what you said and labelled it correct by their own free will. They’ve embraced what you want them to embrace.

A quick sidebar before we move on: “that’s right” is not the same as “you’re right.” If they say “you’re right,” you still have plenty of work left to do because it means they haven’t made your thinking their own.

When you feel like you are ready, use a summary to trigger that response. A good summary is a combination of rearticulating the meaning of what they said and the emotions underlying that meaning. Remember, you are articulating their worldview, not yours.

People want to be understood. And because most people in the world do such a bad job of understanding other people, your counterpart will feel like you are one of the only people in their life that truly “gets” them.

5. Bending Reality

In order to negotiate a great deal, you need some extra strategies up your sleeve. One of the most powerful techniques is to persuade your counterpart that they have something concrete to lose if the deal falls through.

Here are some tactics and strategies to bend reality in your favour.

1. Anchor their emotions

Before you make an offer, anchor their emotions in preparation for a loss. Here is the phone script that Voss used with a group of contractors who normally got $2,000/day for their time, when he only had $500/day to spend.

“I got a lousy proposition for you,” I said, and paused until each asked me to go on. “By the time we get off the phone, you’re going to think I’m a lousy businessman. You’re going to think I can’t budget or plan. You’re going to think Chris Voss is a big talker. His first big project ever out of the FBI, he screws it up completely. He doesn’t know how to run an operation. And he might even have lied to me.” And then, once I’d anchored their emotions in a minefield of low expectations, I played on their loss aversion. “Still, I wanted to bring this opportunity to you before I took it to someone else,” I said.

The conversation shifted from being cut from $2,000 to $500, to how to not lose $500 to another guy. As Voss recounts, every single one of them took the deal, without complaint.

2. Let the other guy go first…most of the time

Neither side has perfect information going to the table, especially when you don’t know the market value of what you are bargaining for. In these situations, let your counterpart go first. Just be prepared for them to lowball you, which they’ll do if they are on top of their game. Many times you’ll get lucky and they’ll open with an offer that’s beyond what you were expecting to get in a final deal.

3. If you do go first, establish a range

When you do have to go first, establish your ballpark range rather than a specific price. A Columbia Business School Study found that job applicants that named a range received significantly higher overall salaries than those that offered a number. This works best when the low number in the range is what you actually want.

Your counterpart will be anchored by those numbers, and will feel like anything near the low end of your range was a victory.

4. Pivot to non-monetary terms

After you’ve anchored your counterpart, you can make your terms seem more reasonable by offering things that aren’t important to you but could be important to them.

5. Use odd numbers

Whenever you use specific numbers, it seems as though you came to that conclusion using thoughtful calculation. Even if there isn’t a good reason you want to pay $31,247 for that new car, it will seem like there’s one.

6. Illusion of Control - Calibrated Questions

Your goal in any negotiation is to get your counterpart to come up with the solution you want on their own. You can’t do this directly, but if you use calibrated questions effectively you can “ride them to your ideas.”

A calibrated question is an open-ended question that allows you to get your counterpart to open up, and in areas of conflict, introduce ideas and requests without sounding overbearing or pushy.

They avoid verbs or words that can be answered with a simple yes or no - can, is, are, do, or does are good examples. The best calibrated questions start off with one of three words - what, how, and sometimes why.

Here are some examples of great calibrated questions:

■ How would you like me to proceed?
■ What is it that brought us into this situation?
■ How can we solve this problem?
■ How am I supposed to do that?

The implied meaning of a calibrated question is that you want the same thing as your counterpart, but you need her intelligence to overcome the problem.

7. Getting Your Counterparts to Bid Against Themselves

When it gets down to the actual bargaining, you’ll usually have four opportunities to say “no” before even saying the word, which gets your counterpart to bid against themselves.

The first time you do it you’ll say “How am I supposed to do that?” The trick is to say it in a deferential way, so that it appears as a plea for help.

The second way to say no is something along the lines of “Your offer is very generous, I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me.”

The third time you can use something like “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I just can’t do that.”

Lastly, you can use “I’m sorry, no.”

All the while you haven’t made a counteroffer, and your counterpart is most likely to bid against themselves at least once during the process.

8. Using the Ackerman Model To Bargain Hard

When you are heading into a negotiation, the most important thing you can do is prepare, and then prepare some more. As the authors point out, “when the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion; you fall to your highest level of preparation.”

One of the best ways to do this is to use the Ackerman Model when you’ve exhausted your “no’s” from the previous step.

It’s an easy to remember process with only four steps:

1. Set your target price (your goal);

2. Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target price;

3. Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95 and 100 percent).

4. When calculating the final amount, use a precise non-round number, like $37,893 rather than $38,000. Also throw in a non monetary item (that that probably don’t want). This suggests you really are at your limit.

The genius of the model is that it incorporates the psychological tactics the master negotiators use - reciprocity, extreme anchors, loss aversion…without needing to think about them.

And there you have it - everything you need to know so that you Never (have to) Split The Difference again.