Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it

Summary: Interesting ideas on how to approach negotiation, but I don’t know how much weight to give them. How much expertise could be developed in hostage negotiations? Can that expertise be distilled into principles, or is much of it tacit knowledge?

VossChris Voss’s Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it (written with Tahl Raz) is a distillation of Voss’s approach to negotiation, developed through 15 years negotiating hostage situations for the FBI. Voss was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator, and for the last decade he has run a consulting firm that guides organisations through negotiations.

I am not sure how I should rate the book. There are elements I like, elements that seem logical, and yet a sense that much is just storytelling. I don’t know enough of the negotiation literature to understand what other support there might be for Voss’s approach – and Voss generally doesn’t draw on the literature – so it is not clear what weight I should give to his arguments.

Voss’s central thread is that we should not approach negotiation as though it is a purely rational exercise. No matter how you frame the negotiation in advance, there is no escaping the humans that will be engaging in that negotiation.

This argument seems obvious, as in many negotiations you will be dealing with emotional people. Yet a flip through some of the classic negotiating texts, such as Getting to Yes, shows that the consideration of emotion is often shallow. Emotion is largely discussed as something to be overcome so that a mutually beneficial deal can be reached.

A deeper level to understanding the role emotion is to see how integral it is to the negotiating process. Emotion and decision-making cannot be disentangled.

In the opening chapter, Voss links this need to consider emotions to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (unfortunately described as University of Chicago professors who discovered more than 150 cognitive biases). Voss draws on Kahneman’s distinction between the two modes of thought described in Thinking, Fast and Slow: the fast, instinctive and emotional System 1, and the slow, deliberative and logical System 2. If you go into a negotiation with all the tools to deal with System 2 without the tools to read, understand and manipulate System 1, you were trying to make an omelette without cracking an egg.

Despite being prominent in the opening, Kahneman and Tversky’s work is only briefly considered in other parts of the book, mainly in one chapter that includes examination of anchoring and loss aversion. By manipulating someone’s reference point and capitalising on their fear of loss, you can shift the terms of what they will agree to.

For instance, Voss suggests that you might initially anchor the other side’s expectations through an “accusation audit”, whereby you list every terrible thing the other side could say about you in advance. You then create a frame so that the agreement is to avoid loss. Putting those together, you might start out by saying that you have a horrible deal for them, but still want to bring it to them before you give it to somebody else. By taking the sting out of the low offer and framing acceptance of that offer as an opportunity to avoid loss, you might induce acceptance.

Voss also discusses the idea of setting a very high or low anchor early in negotiations, although he notes that this comes at a cost. It might be effective against the inexperienced, but you lose the opportunity of learning from the other side when they go first. If prepared, you can resist their anchor, and if you are in a low information environment, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Voss recognises the human desire for fairness in another important factor. While Voss draws on the academic literature to demonstrate that desire, his proposed approaches to fairness in negotiation are not put in the context of that literature. As a result, I don’t have much of a grip on whether his ideas – such as avoiding accusations of unfairness, and giving the other side permission to stop you at any time of they feel you are being unfair – are effective. It’s polite, sounds reasonable, but does it work?

The concept that gets the most attention in the book is tactical empathy. This involves active listening, with tools such as mirroring (repeating the last few words someone said to induce them to keep explaining), labelling (giving a name to their feelings) and summarising their position back to them. I am partial to these ideas. By listening, you can learn a lot. I have always found that simple repetition of concepts, whether through mirroring, labelling or summarising, are powerful tools to get people to open up and to understand their position.

Another thread to the book is the idea of saying no without saying no, generally through the use of calibrated questions. Calibrated questions are questions with no fixed answer, and that can’t be answered with a yes or no. They typically start with “how” or “what”, rather than “is” or “does”. They can be used to give the other side the illusion of control while at the same time pushing them to think about solving your problem. If the price is higher than you want to pay, you might say “how am I supposed to pay that?” Calibrated questions also have broader use through the negotiation to learn more from your counterpart.

Ideas such as this seem attractive, but I don’t know how much weight I should put on Voss’s arguments. This is largely because I don’t how much expertise you could develop in hostage negotiation, and the degree to which that expertise is tacit knowledge. Voss notes that his expertise is built from experience, not from textbooks, and that his approach is designed for the real world. Can a human build skills for this real world? Is there rapid feedback on decisions, with an opportunity to learn?

In one sense there is feedback, with the hostages released or not, and the terms of that release known. But each negotiation would involve a multitude of decisions and factors. Conversations might extend for days or weeks. How effectively can you isolate the cause of the outcome? How stable is that cause-effect relationship across different negotiations?

In a podcast episode with Sam Harris, Voss mentioned that he had been involved around 150 hostage negotiations around the world. That would seem a fair number to start to be able to identify patterns, particularly if you consider that through a negotiation there might be many smaller opportunities of feedback, such as extracting information. But as Voss’s stories through the book show, these negotiations span across many different countries and contexts. How many of those elements are common and stable enough for true expertise to develop? Most of his experience involved international kidnapping – a commodity business involving financial transactions. Can the lessons from these be applied elsewhere?

Voss (and the FBI more generally) would have had a broader range of examples to draw on, and Voss’s more recent experience in consulting on negotiation could provide further opportunities to develop expertise. But it’s not obvious how that experience is incorporated into expertise that in turn can be effectively distilled into a book.

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