It’s emotional intelligence on steroids

“Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” by Chris Voss

This is a phenomenal book, written by an author who spent the majority of his 24 years career as the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and its hostage negotiation representative for the National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group. Apart from trained by the bureau, he was also trained in Scotland Yard and Harvard Law School.

But first and foremost, his negotiation techniques come directly from the tried and tested field, from his experience in the deep jungle of Ecuador, to the separatist area of the Philippines, the slumps of Tahiti, to the many occurrences from within the US including bank robberies, a prison coup, and that bomb threat incident that got Washington DC into a lockdown for 48 hours. Indeed, reading this book feels like watching a very intense action movie, with all the detailed, chaotic, and super-tense scenes.

The many real-life lessons in the book also come from business world, board meeting battles, investment negotiations, and the various cases that his students faced, from high stake deals to as menial as asking a salary raise.

Constructed the book using these real-life events, the author, Chris Voss, guides us through the negotiation tactics that worked and also the ones that didn’t, which ones became the FBI’s standard practice and which ones were so disastrous they literally cost lives and became the standard of what NOT to do. It is as if we jump directly into these many negotiation situations ourselves and Voss gives us on-the-job training and provides us with the pointers to the live action, which is exhilarating.

And those techniques that became time-tested and have since molded into something near perfection? Voss teaches them all in this book.

So what are the negotiation techniques? At its core lies active listening. Using a relaxed and friendly tone (or as Voss refer as “midnight FM DJ’s tone”), we first try to establish a rapport early on and listen to what our counterpart actually want, labelling their emotions, and validating their words (with the “I see”, “ok”, “uh-huh”, “yes” words).

We then use mirroring, effective pauses, and calibrated questions to prompt for more reactions and dig for more information, all of which we eventually paraphrase and summarise to show them that we really understand their point of view, in order to create enough trust and feeling of safety for the real conversation to begin.

In between the sequences, Voss teaches us several hacks, such as explaining why getting a “no” early on is important instead of getting two of the three “yes” (counterfeit, confirmation, and commitment). While a non-commitment “yes” can be used to just get away from the situation, a “no” can actually be an initial word to establish a sense of safety, security, and control for our counterpart, an important inner environment to get them relaxed and ready for a fruitful talk.

The sequence then proceeds with the objection of getting a “that’s right” from them after we provide the summary, which would confirm where they stand in this negotiation and thus we can get a better measure of our leverages. Voss highlighted that there are 3 different types of leverage that we could identify in the conversation: positive (the ability to give people what they want), negative (the ability to hurt people), and normative (covers the principles and values that our counterpart have).

Apart from leverages, different types of characters can also play a big role in the negotiation process, which Voss categorised into 3: the analyst, the accommodator, and the assertive. And he provides all the necessary tools on how to deal with each different one of them.

Of course, the sequence is not rigid and should be fluid depending on the conversation, as we size them up, influence their sizing up on us, while keeping an eye on any potential Black Swans – which are clearly shown in the real-life examples. But none of these tools matter if we cannot control our own emotions, which is a critical part of the interaction. As Voss remark, “[i]f you can’t control your own emotions, how can you expect to influence the emotions of another party?”

Negotiation is something we do every single day, whether we realised it or not, no matter how big or small, whether against a high profile counterpart or just bargaining with your own self. It serves two distinct but vital life functions – information gathering and behaviour influencing – where each party wants something from the other side. Hence, this book is a vital one to read, perhaps even one of the most important books you’ll ever going to read, due to its direct practicality for every kind of human interaction in any given situation.

The importance of the lessons in this book can be seen from the 339 notes that I highlighted, almost twice as many as my normal average of 150+ in any book. It is easily the best book that I’ve read this year, and it’s right up there in the list of my favourite of all time.

Bonus interview: Go to School of Greatness podcast, episode 902, where Lewis Howes interviewed Voss to dissect more about the tools in this book.