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adrw // Andrew Alexander

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It

Books, Author(Chris Voss)9 min read

2016 | Chris Voss

Written by a FBI hostage negotiator. In his first days of a executive negotiations training course at Harvard schooled the entire room using FBI tactics that worked in the field vastly better than the theory taught in MBA classes.

Voss intersperces his techniques with stories from the field and from personal life of how he has negtiated successfully and sometimes failed to achieve the desired outcome.

Tone of Voice

Tone of voice matters. For hostage and intense negotations, he often goes with a midnight DJ smooth baritone tone that exudes calmness, confidence, and omniprescence. An aggressive posture and tone as recommended in many negotiating seminars may "get to yes", but that yes will simply be so you shut up and go away.


Mirroring is the tactic of repeating back 2-3 words from what the other person recently said to encourage them to keep talking. The mirroring shows that you are listening but also often is convincing for the other persons' unconcious empathy judgement into thinking that you are not a threat. This makes the other person much more open to negotiating in good faith and trusting what you are saying.


Silence is a secret tactic. Leaving time for a statement or question to sit puts unconscious social pressure on the other person to respond. When used in interrogations, people in periods of awkward silence can often end up rambling and sometimes fully confessing simply to stop the awkward encounter. During negotiations, using silence gives the other person the chance to actually listen to what you said above the noise of you talking, them trying to process your words, and their inner voice.

Additionally, the uncomfortbility of silence implies that you are unwilling to budge on a given term. Your counterpart will now start negotiating against themself to back down enough to get out of the situation amicably, doing the hard work of the negotiation for you!


People anchor to the first piece of data encountered. For example, if the price starts high, any offers are generally made relative to it. Low-balling to what the actual price might be can often be seen as unfair and is naively avoided.

Anchoring also can be used to prepare someone for an offer that at first listen would not be considered. But, when the initial offer presented is so awful, then the follow up "concession" (the actual offer) can be seen as a great compromise and worth taking.

That's Right

"That's right", means they agree. "You're right", means they have tuned you out and just want to exit the conversation.

Don't Split the Difference

Don't split the difference. Compromise and accepting worse deals is a tactic for feelings or discomfort minimization, not good negotiating.


Deadlines cause people to do many things against the best interest and to rush a situation. Across countless private industry clients of Voss, only one example over decades could be given of a real deadline. Almost all are fake and with minimal blowback if it is missed, and thus a tool to imply deadlines for counterparts and not to get frantic yourself.

Give them the chance to say "No"

In many aggresive interactive door-to-door sales pitches, questions are all phrased so that the counter party always answers "Yes" as they are aggresively led towards an unavoidable purchase.

In that moment, the counter party has an aggresive urge to want to say "No" just to prove that they still can. Phrasing questions in a way that you want the other person to say "No" drops their defences, especially early in the negotiation or when things have gotten tense.

For example, if someone is no longer replying to emails a follow up of "It's been 3 weeks, could we please move forward with approval of the pilot?" could be rephrased to be "Have you decided to not proceed with the pilot at all?".

If thoughtfully written to not come off too passive aggressively, it warrants a response that is easier to give since it lets the person say "No".

The "F" Word

Use and be aware of the emotional power of the "F" word: fair. People intuitively do not want to be seen as being unfair. Starting the negotiation stating that you want to operate the negotiations fairly and using the word to describe the deal you're presenting puts the moral quandry on the other person. Similarly if they complain of a deal not being fair, and you're not aware of this potentially unconscious tactic, you can easily end up providing irrational concessions to be seen as fair in the eyes of the other party.

Be aware that throwing this word around will not come kindly. For example, implying that disagreeing with an offer would be "unfair" could end up with deal blowing up since it backs the counter party in a corners where they don't feel they have the option to freely say "no".

Loss Aversion

People naturally avoid loss. If competition can be presented amongst bidders and offers anchored low, often bidders will accept a much worse offer than if presented flat out due to not wanting to lose even the low bid to someone else.

Don't Always Go First to Anchor

For monetary negotiations, generally having the other party make the first offer is the best tactic. In other cases, going first to anchor can still be advantageous.

In salary negotiations, for example, letting the employer anchor first can prevent you from unknowingly making an initial offer lower than what their initial offer would be.

In cases where you have the knowledge advantage or are the employer, you can often get away with lowballing and setting an extreme anchor. Or, if sides are equal in knowledge, throwing out a reasonable offer can make the negotiations go faster.

Yet, your reputation of fairness lingers long after the deal is struck. A history of lowballing employees or customers from a point of power will limit future deals as others see you as predatory.

Anchoring Using a Range

When returning with a counter-offer, using a range for the monetary value of previous deals or what would be fair (obviously set optimistically) can draw the counter party towards not negotiating any lower than your lower bound, as to not seem unfair.

Studies show even exposure to an extreme anchor adjusts the willingness of the counter party in that direction, sometimes even to their maximum offer.

For example, a new hire at a job where the employer goes in wanting to pay $125k could bring up in the negotiations that "Well, I know that at ABC Corp, they pay similarly qualified new grads $130-170k". This doesn't come off aggresive or put the employer in a defensive position but moves their anchor up.

Pivot to Non-Monetary Terms

Numbers in isolation leads to bargainning, limited by emotions of fairness and pride.

Pivoting to non-monetary terms can make a high-anchored offer seem reasonable by offering them things that matter more to them, or by anchoring them a bit lower you can extract non-monetary terms more easily.

For example, the author accepted a reduced monetary offer for a speech from a lawyer organization when they offered to feature him on the cover of their industry magazine, very valuable advertising that was more than the discount.

Exact Numbers Imply Pre-Meditated Thought

Exact numbers imply that deep thought and analysis has gone into generating the offer. Round numbers imply a roughness and that they are movable.

The Gift

Lean into people's intuition for reciprocity by offering a gift or something generous after an initially high anchor offer is rebuffed. The intuition for reciprocity and fairness will take over and the counter party will often increase their willingness to move towards your offer.

Calibrated Open Ended Questions

Give the other party the illusion of control so you can get them to come up with your offer as their idea.

Don't use easy to answer and single word respondable questions. Use What, How, and sometimes Why questions to get the counter to think and respond expansively. Why often comes across acusatorely and should only be used when the defensive position it puts the counter is exactly where you want them to be.

Rephrasing an open ended question to the reverse of a demand will soften the other party and switch them to help you problem solve.

For example, a patient gets up to leave when not allowed after surgery. A nurse demands that he must stay, he ignores her and continues to pack. A doctor comes in and asks "What are you trying to accomplish by leaving?"

The patient pauses, thinks, and responds, "I have some errands that I have to do."

Doctor replies that the patient can be connected to a service that will help him do that. The patient calms down and agrees to stay since he has now come up with the reason why he wanted to leave and that is now resolved.

Backed into a Corner, "How am I supposed to do that?"

When in a supposed corner against an immovable party, often laying out the situation and turning the tables back on them with an open ended question of "How can I do that?" can soften them to see the position you are in.

It is especially useful when negotiating downwards as a way to not have to give a firm "no" which can stimey negotiations.

Ensure that your tone of voice isn't accusational but beckoning help. For example, when a kidnapper demanded daily payments and threatened cutting off limbs if payment wasn't made, a negoitators question after many "How" and "What" questions of "When we run out of money, what will happen?" led the kidnapper to unknowingly promise "It will be okay", or that no harm will be done to the hostage. A huge win and a deescalation on the result of many open ended questions.

Regulate your Emotions

Even with the best tactics, letting your emotions get the best of you ruins any negotiation.

Bight your tongue. Give yourself time to pause, let passions ease, and think through what you want to say.

Do not counter-attack verbal attacks, use a calibrated question in response to ease tensions. People can respond aggresively like hostages when they feel like they lack power. Grant them the illusion of power to ease their worries.

Do not try to force the opponent to admit you are right. This may satisfy your emotions but will not move the nogotiation forward.

Quick response or "yes" questions extract little information and use up your capital given the expected reciprocity of conversation.

3 Types of Yes

Three types of "Yes" that a negotiation can reach: commitment, confirmation, and counterfeit.

Pushy salesmen often end up getting counterfeit, instead of the desired commitment yes.

The rule of 3 of getting "yes" 3 times in the same conversation reduces the chance of you mistaking a counterfeit "yes" for a commitment "yes" since the lie repeated may not be as convincing each time.

Tactics for not sounding like a pushy broken record include varying tactics for attempts 2 and 3 using a summary to get them to say "that's right" and then a calibration question for implementation like "What do we do if we get off track?". Rephrasing the same initial question differently each time can also help reveal any falsehoods.


Most people have tells when they are lying. Often they use more words through complex sentences and third-person pronouns (him, her, not I) to separate themselves from their lie.

The deferral away from first-person pronouns (I) and use of plural (we) also shows up as a tactic to defer any major decisions to parties (real or not) who are not sitting at the table to reduce the implication that the negotiator is actually the one with the power to make the deicision of concession.

Use Your Name

In contrast to pushy salesmen that hammer home the counter party with use of their name to imply mutual trust, flip the tactic and use your name to force the counter party to have empathy with you. This forces them to see you as a person.

Saying, "Hi, my name is ____", with a calm deferential tone of voice can disarm the most unruly situations, and even get special discounts or provisions in retail situations!

Getting Them to Negotiate Against Themselves

Tell them "No" a few times without ever saying the word to have the counter party continue to negotiate against themselves upon each response.

  • "How can I do that?": they will empathize with your situation and give a better offer
  • "Though your offer is generous, I'm sorry but it won't work for me": nurture counter part to live up to the word, soften with an apology
  • "I'm sorry but I can't do that": inability to perform triggers more empathy
  • "I'm sorry, no": if delivered gently, it barely sounds negative at all
  • "No": tone of downward inflection with regard


The key is to rattle the other guy ever so slightly to leave them on their heels.

Any response that isn't an outright rejection to the offer means you have the upper hand.

Sometimes presenting humbly "I'm so embaressed, I can't make that price work" and "Your offer is very generous, but I can't do that" along with silence through continuing to say "No" without saying the word can be the perfect combination.

Negotiating Personality Types

The key to negotiating the person across the table is not the "Golden Rule" (how you want to be treated), but to treat them how they need to be treated. Ensuring that you address their personality needs is vital to a successfuly negotiation.


Desires to be liked regardless of negotiation outcome. When encountered with silence, assumes someone is angry and something is wrong.

When an accomodator is negotiating an accomodator, their mutual desire to listen and propensity for small talk risk not accomplishing much.


Desires to be efficient in negotiations and not waste time even more than getting the best result. Perceives silence as an opportunity for them to keep talking. Will not listen to the other party unless they think that they have been understood.

Mirroring and calibrating questions work especially well when negotiating an assertive personality since they are happy to keep talking and to feel heard.


Desires to get the best result. Is comfortable with silence and uses the opportunity to think.

Strategic Umbridge

Sometimes letting some anger slide into a threat can be very effective at pushing the counterpart to a better deal. Yet, it is also a risk to be aware lest you fall into.

Honest anger, channeled at the proposal, and not the person, can be very effective.

"That simply is not ever going to work"

People on the receiving end of strategic umbridge rated themselves as overly assertive leading to them to buckle to not appear so heavy handed.

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