Sean’sNotes: ‘Never Split the Difference’ by Chris Voss


“Negotiation is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery.”—Chris Voss, former FBI top hostage negotiator  

I first listened to Chris Voss’ book, “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as Your Life Depended on It,” on Audible.

And, after listening to the book several times, I had gotten so much out of it, that I ordered the hardcopy to do a deeper dive so that I could share my notes with you. 

I've read a lot of great books on negotiation—this one is the best so far. It’s a must-read for every CEO.

Here are the top negotiation techniques that I took away from the book to serve as my quick reference guide.

1. Using your voice

“Your most powerful tool in any verbal communication is your voice.”

Voss says that we should keep three types of voices in mind when we negotiate:

#1. The positive/ playful voice

This should be our default voice. The idea is to smile while talking.

#2. Late-night FM DJ voice

Use selectively. It communicates confidence and calm: “I’ve got it covered.”

#3. Direct or assertive voice.

Use rarely. It can cause your counterpart to shut down, especially if you use it too often.

Application: When we encounter potential conflict, we often default to the direct or assertive voice, which increases tension. Instead, be intentional with using the right voice in the right situation—to ensure your voice is working for you, not against you. 

2. Tactical empathy (with labeling)

“Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow. It’s bringing our attention to both the emotional obstacles and the potential pathways to getting an agreement done. It’s emotional intelligence on steroids.”

Voss gives this example of labeling: “It looks like you don’t want to come out. It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing. It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.”

The objective of tactical empathy: Get to “That’s right,” not “You’re right.”

“You’re right” = “I’m telling you that I agree, but I really just want you off my back.” 

“That’s right” = “You get it. You understand me.” 

Application: This is the most significant breakthrough for me in the book: "That's right." 

The moment you can get a prospect or client to the point of saying, “That’s right,” about a problem you can help them solve—that’s when you’re well on your way to securing the deal. 

3. Saying “No” without saying “No” 

Use calibrated questions to avoid attacking your counterpart’s ego—such as, “How am I supposed to do that?”

Other examples of calibrated questions:

  • “What about this is important to you?”

  • “How can I help make this better for us?”

  • “How would you like me to proceed?”

  • “What is it that brought us into this situation?”

  • “How can we solve this problem?”

Application: Think about how we tend to say “No”:

  • That won’t work for me.

  • No way. That’s not going to happen.

  • I can’t do it for that amount.

  • Your offer is insulting.

Statements like these can come across as attacking their ego and will shut down the conversation.

But a genuine, "How am I supposed to do that?" invites your counterpart to collaborate with you on the problem. And that will keep the conversation moving toward a resolution.

4.  Anchoring

Anchoring is a strategy for setting a frame of reference in negotiation. 

Whether the initial “anchor” is an extremely high or low number, we’re susceptible to using that number as our frame of reference to arrive at a perceived “reasonable” price.

So, if your counterpart starts with an extreme anchor, watch out!

Voss labels anchoring as “bending reality.” The point here is that you want to be the one bending the other person’s reality—and resisting your counterpart’s attempt to bend your reality.

Here are three tips:

#1. Let the other guy go first...most of the time.

“[But] you’ve got to be careful when you let the other guy anchor. You have to prepare yourself psychically to withstand the first offer. If the other guy is a pro, a shark, he’s going to go for an extreme anchor in order to bend your reality. Then, when they come back with a merely absurd offer it will seem reasonable.”

#2. Establish a range. 

“While going first rarely helps, there is one way to seem to make an offer and bend their reality in the process. That is, by alluding to a range.” 

#3. When you do talk numbers, use odd ones.

“Anything you throw out that sounds less rounded—say, $37,263—feels like a figure that you came to as a result of thoughtful calculation. Such numbers feel serious and permanent to your counterpart, so use them to fortify your offers.” 

Application: Experiment with using odd numbers in sales proposals—to explore how that impacts your conversion rate and proposal-to-conversion cycle

5. The 7-38-55% rule

This rule is based on the famous study by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, where he breaks down how our audiences process our messages according to these percentages:

  • 7%—our words

  • 38%—our tone of voice

  • 55%—our body language and face.

“So, how do you use this rule? First, pay very close attention to tone and body language to make sure they match up with the literal meaning of the words. If they don’t align, it’s quite possible that the speaker is lying or at least unconvinced.”

Application: This rule can also help you analyze your own communication, not just your counterpart's. Whenever possible (and appropriate), record yourself—such as, recording video calls with prospects. Are your tone of voice and body language aligned with your words? Any discrepancy could be sending the wrong signals to your audience.    

6. The Ackerman Model

Voss names this method after Mike Ackerman, an ex-CIA agent who founded a kidnap-for-ransom consulting company based out of Miami.

Step #1: Set your target price (your goal).

Step #2: Set your first offer at 65% of your target price.

Step #3: Calculate three raises of increments (to 85, 95, and 100% of your target price)

Step #4: Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer.

Step #5: When calculating the final amount, use precise, non-round numbers like, say, $37,893 rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight. 

Step #6: On your final number, throw in a non-monetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.

Application: The Ackerman Model summarizes (in a neat package) many of the techniques Voss shares in the book. Experiment with the opening anchor of 65% of the target price. This process helps take some of the emotion out of the negotiation process so that you can stay focused on your objective.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps companies use tactical storytelling to unlock sales growth. Sean is also the founder and executive editor of Strategy & Storytelling, a blog that serves as the CEO's definitive guide to becoming a more effective and persuasive communicator.

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