Haggling for the Hostage or the Humdrum: A Review of Chris Voss’s “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It.”
Never Split the Difference

Haggling for the Hostage or the Humdrum: A Review of Chris Voss’s “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It.”

Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator turned business consultant with a long career of overcoming tense, difficult situations under his belt. Tahl Raz is an award-winning journalist, editor and strategist. Together, they’ve written a book that tells you everything you need to know about negotiating successfully, in both business and life.

At first glance, Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, sounds overqualified. Do you really need a life-saving hostage crisis negotiator and former FBI agent to help you sell a used printer or sign a rental agreement? 

Voss makes a convincing case that his experience dealing with crises is highly transferable to more quotidian circumstances, however. As he puts it, “Getting what you want out of life is all about getting what you want from – and with – other people.” Whether you’re talking down a bank robber or convincing a toddler to go to bed, it all comes down to the same core negotiation skills. 

People often settle for less than they want because it seems convenient, or get angry when they don’t get what they desire. Both behaviors are unhealthy in private and business relationships alike. The only good way to navigate conflict, Voss argues, is negotiation. Negotiators must have the confidence to pursue what they need. On the flip side, you should never get so focused on a predetermined goal that you reject something better, if offered.

If the idea of negotiating makes you anxious, never fear: Voss shows that you don’t have to be an FBI-trained savant to bargain effectively. You don’t even have to like conflict. All you need are the right tools, knowledge and a little practice. 

Many people believe that successful negotiating hinges on reasoning and raw intellectual prowess. Foundational texts of negotiation, such as Getting to Yes and Thinking, Fast and Slow, reinforce this impression. Voss claims that this approach is mistaken, because humans are, fundamentally, irrational. Taking a different tack, Voss brands his style of negotiation as “tactical empathy”: understanding the deeper motivations behind your counterpart’s actions. The trick is to make your opponents feel that they came up with your desired solution themselves, giving them the illusion of control. 

Voss’s preferred tools for accessing these deeper motivations are open-ended questions. When used in the proper sequence and with the correct tone, they can buy time, rebalance the power dynamic, help you avoid rudeness, and foster trust or mutual understanding. He also recommends performing what he calls an “accusation audit” before a negotiation to anticipate potential criticism the other party might present. Acknowledging these “accusations” at the beginning of the encounter can build trust and credibility. 

Voss encourages negotiators to pay careful attention to the other party’s answers, as well as nonverbal clues like body language and facial expressions. As Voss shows, when people feel you are really listening to them, they’re more likely to stay calm and listen to you. Voss recommends a few methods to show that you’re listening carefully: mirroring (repeating the last one to three words the other negotiating party said, often in question form), labeling (identifying, out loud, the emotion that the other party seems to be experiencing) and responding (addressing the other party’s concerns in good faith). Voss advocates being humble and considerate, yet firm and uncompromising. Resist the temptation to dismiss a difficult opponent as irrational or crazy. It’s more likely that they just have needs or rules that you must work to understand.

To show these techniques in action, Voss begins each chapter with the story of a hostage negotiation. He dissects each instance, explaining what worked and where negotiators made mistakes. Voss also includes various examples from other, less extreme contexts, such as salary negotiations and car purchases. He offers plenty of advice for the novice negotiator, such as embracing the initial “no,” disregarding deadlines, using controlled anger strategically and letting the other party set the price first. Voss lets readers know which other theories of negotiation work, like the Ackerman bargaining method, and which ones usually backfire. In addition, he discusses how various circumstantial factors might change a negotiation strategy and cause you to deviate from the Voss orthodoxy. 

The hostage anecdotes are thrilling, even if their retelling does stretch the bounds of believability. Even accounting for creative liberties, it’s hard to buy that Voss really conducted an impromptu survey of three just-handcuffed hostage takers to find out why they gave up when they did – much less that they all gave identical answers. It’s also hard to believe that a hostage-taking international warlord really called the FBI’s local negotiator after a crisis resolution to tell him that he deserved a promotion. Voss recounts mistakes he made during negotiations, but never his own outright failures; in every sample negotiation in which he was personally involved, the hostage makes it out alive. His recollections of past crises, thus, sometimes feel like humble-bragging. 

Voss and his co-writer, Tahl Raz, use a conversational tone that makes Voss come across as ever-confident and self-assured. Some readers might find this a bit off-putting and promotional. Indeed, it’s hard to ignore that the book is, essentially, one long plug for Voss’s consulting firm. Voss tries to resist the tropes of his genre – he even states, at one point, that this is “not another pop-psych book.” But, as with any text that makes sweeping generalizations about human behavior, his attempts to offer wholly original ideas fall a bit short of the mark. To some readers, Voss’s psychological insights may seem painfully obvious – such as the notion that people, generally, have both outward emotions and inward ones, and that these two do not always align. He also focuses on negotiations between two parties, so this book may not satisfy readers who need guidance on how to manage multiparty arrangements.

Despite the criticism outlined above, the book is well worth reading. It’s entertaining, readers new to negotiation will learn some basic principles and more experienced ones will get a handy refresher. Voss is at his most enlightening when he offers examples of how to practice some of the skills he discusses via role-playing games (“sixty seconds or she dies” is especially memorable). An appendix to the book includes a worksheet to help would-be negotiators prepare. To truly become a master negotiator, there’s no substitute for experience, but there are worse starting places than Voss’s book. 

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