Never Split The Difference

Have you ever thought "Man I wish I could negotiate"? Have I got a book recommendation for you!

Cropped image of the book "Never Split The Difference", showing these words front and center

Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss is one of those books that you wish you had read sooner. It is full of eye-opening insights that probably could've saved me a lot of money in the past had I read it sooner.

You see, I've never been a good negotiator - whether we're talking about haggling for a price, or just trying to push through something at work to do it my way instead of colleagues' solutions.

For example, I always believed that when a price is set, it's not going to move. To me, in the context of the price of an object, buying a car is no different than buying cheese from a grocery store. Both have a price tag, and it's surreal to think that I'd be able to get it for less than that - outside of a discount that the seller provides, but that's still a price that they have set, and not one that I have negotiated for.

This book believes otherwise. One of the biggest takeaways for me is the insight that negotiation happens whether we acknowledge or want to take part in it or not.

The first step to achieving a mastery of daily negotiation is to get over your aversion to negotiating. You don’t need to like it; you just need to understand that’s how the world works. [page 18]

And that hurts, because I was mostly ignorant of this. What's worse, I was cognisant of my ignorance, and was fine with that.

This book is a great slap in the face in that regard. It talks about how to negotiate, which I understand feels like a daunting topic, but I feel that it managed to convey both a mentality, and a lot of techniques that one can use to become better at it (or, in my case, start doing it).

I won't outline every single idea this book tries to teach us, but the ones I found particularly interesting / useful are:

Start with listening

I know that this sounds like a no-brainer, and it is, but many times when we are negotiating (or arguing about something), we use the time the other person is speaking as time to compile what we are going to say back to them.

Chris Voss says: don't. Listen to the other person, actively. Doing so not only makes them feel like they are heard, but also gives you more information about where they are coming from, which you can use to inform how you approach the negotiation.

Decision making is governed by emotion

I'm sure this is also one of those "well DUH" sentences, but when I think about trying to convince someone of something, I always use logic.

And that rarely works.

Instead, emotions always take a huge part in decisions. Logic may get you to the door, but only emotion can get you through it.

Calibrated questions are amazing

A calibrated question is one that specifically makes the other person try to think of a solution to your problem.

Use “How” questions to shape the negotiating environment. You do this by using “How can I do that?” as a gentle version of “No.” [Page 186]

Questions like these are good for saying "no" without actually saying no. They are also good at getting more information out of the other party.

Questions like "How am I supposed to do that?", or "What about this do you think does not work?", or "Why would we choose your competitors over you?".

It's important that these are not yes/no questions. I've been trying to switch my yes/no questions to calibrated ones, and it's hard. But at times when I managed to use some, the outcome was much better (not only from the actual outcome of the negotiation, but also the process, and how people felt afterwards).

Negotiation requires preparation

The other ground-shattering idea (for me, which is kinda sad) was that, quote:

When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion; you fall to your highest level of preparation.

Such an important message that even the book itself has it on two separate pages: 211 and 251.

When going into a negotiation, it's important to be prepared. It could (and should) be preceded by hours or days of research on the topic at hand. Because when you negotiate, and you have to take a punch (for example, an extremely low-ball offer), you need to be prepared to "fight back", or just walk away, knowing that it's such a bad deal that, well:

No deal is better than a bad deal. [page 115]

Closing notes

There are so many other interesting and useful bits in this book, it's hard to summarise them. From psychological factors like how people like others who are similar to them, to how much the anchoring effect can play in a negotiation (putting aside the replication crisis), to things like how uncovering unknown unknowns can massively alter your position in a negotiation, and the list goes on.

I feel it's also important to emphasise that this book is not about "how to take advantage of the other person", but rather, "if you don't engage in a negotiation, you may be taken advantage of without you knowing".

With all that gleaming words, I must admit that there were parts of the book that I did not much care for. It's written in such a way that the author's past (being a law enforcement official, an FBI negotiator, and a teacher / professor) is interleaved with his teaching, giving examples of the different topics being discussed. While it's amazing what he has done, I felt that some of these were not at all applicable to the situations I usually find myself in.

There were also the stories of what Voss' pupils have done, in a typical self-help book fashion, "when they did what I taught, they achieved great success". These garnered many eye-rollings.

This is a personal preference, and your mileage may vary.

All in all, amazing book, I highly recommend it.

Stick figure standing in front of a car saying "You can have it for as low as $12,000". Other stick figure with a pony tail, arms crossed, says "$100, final offer". Image is captioned with "The Phoebe Buffay Method"
Some techniques work better than others - for reference