For more than 40 years I have read about, thought about, and practiced negotiation. I’ve put deliberate attention into becoming better at it. I have read dozens of books and taken courses on negotiation and mediation.

I’ve faced some odd ducks across the negotiation table, but I’ve never dealt with a crazy holding a gun to someone’s head. Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator, who literally negotiated life and death situations. He’s the author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It.

Never Split the Difference stands apart from most of the books on negotiation. The author’s experience is based on extreme situations unlike what 95% of negotiators will ever encounter. Voss did not get involved unless lives were at stake. When you’re talking about buying or selling a house or car nobody’s life is at risk.

For Voss, the counterpart’s perception and emotions are more important than The Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). His stories are extreme, provocative, and hard to relate to. Yet his principles and practices work, and my effectiveness will increase as I apply them more consistently.

His core idea is that you prevail by listening and asking questions rather than talking, reasoning, or trying to persuade. He also says that questioning and listening are far more difficult than most negotiators understand. Voss knows that if your counterpart explains his perception of the world you’re not obligated to instruct. You can simply help them exit their (self-created) jam without the death or destruction they’re willing to cause.

Voss listens with quiet acceptance.  Once the other side recognizes that Voss has understood them, Voss invites them into conventional reality. The solution will be based on the negotiator’s ability to understand the other side’s worldview and motivations.

Here are some key ideas you can use in negotiations.

* Slow. It. Down.
* Build rapport.
* Listen: ask open-end question to understand other side’s worldview, motivations and perceived norms.
* Give the other side immense control.
* Sympathize: show a desire to find a mutually acceptable solution. Gently and indirectly help your counterpart realize that you can’t provide what they hope for. Get the counterpart to become involved in a solution that you can deliver.
* Guarantee execution: Ask three different ways for confirmation about successful implementation.
* Deal with people according to one of three major types (accommodators, analysts or asssertives). Each style receives and processes information and relates differently.
* Always be watching for the black swans, the facts which change everything.

Voss provides chapter summaries and bold type key points that help you understand his ideas. It is a fascinating read, and a yet difficult system to implement. Voss’ system requires heavier human dynamic analysis and more keenly refined intuition than most negotiators ever need, but there’s a lot to learn here.

If you only face conventional situations with rational people and relatively low stakes, this is probably not the book for you. If you routinely deal with people on the other side who don’t seem to respond to conventional morality or protocol or courtesy, you’ll learn a lot from this book. But be prepared to do the hard work to learn what’s here and put it into practice.


Terry Moore, CCIM, is the author of Building Legacy Wealth: How to Build Wealth and Live a Life Worth Imitating. Read his “Welcome to My Blog.