I had a dream last night. I was sitting opposite former FBI Lead International Kidnapping Negotiator Chris Voss. We were eating pancakes. I’d made the fatal mistake of finishing mine too soon, so I looked on in agony as former FBI Lead International Kidnapping Negotiator Chris Voss meticulously worked his way through the remainder of his stack.
Normally I’d resign myself to my just desserts(!). But not today.
Following a fresh reading of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, I decided to take on the master himself and negotiate my way to gluttony.
Step 1: Set your limits before entering negotiations
I have a raging sweet tooth and those pancakes had been particularly good. But seeing as the kitchen had already closed for the afternoon, I was out of luck. My first instinct was to offer Voss the entire contents of my wallet ($21.42, all coins).
Then I remembered Voss’s advice that before entering a negotiation I should set a hard limit on what I’d be willing to pay. Beyond this point, no deal would be better than a crappy deal. This idea is known in negotiation theory as the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA).
Considering that waffles would have been a reasonable substitute and that there was a Waffle Fairy joint $10 cab-fare away, I set my limit to $11.42. FBI or not — Chris Voss wasn’t going to get a cent more out of this penguin.
Step 2: Connect and build trust
The next step in negotiation is to connect and gain the trust of the counter-party. Voss tells us to build rapport by showing similarity, such as highlighting fellow alumni status or adopting vocabulary colored by your counter-party’s belief system. He gives the example of talking about “stewardship” around Christians, a term common inside their circles but rare outside, thus making it valuable for signaling in-group status.
Voss looks tough, sounds tough, and acts tough. He could have starred as himself on The Wire and no-one would have blinked. Seeing as his book was filled with weaponized vocabulary (e.g. “tactical empathy”, “disarm your opponent”, “potent tools”), I followed suit.
Me: “Those pancakes really hit the mark. The best part was that depth charge of coconut cream that explodes with turbo taste!”
Voss: “Damn right. They’re a cut above the rest. A real knock-out recipe.”
I continued bombarding him with small talk of this caliber, and our tactical-strategic rapport grew.
Having a positive relationship, Voss writes, creates an atmosphere of problem-solving that gets deals done. This may be true, but I don’t find the advice particularly helpful. It could apply to basically all interactions involving any animal higher up in the development index than a sponge.
More promising is one of Voss’s big general-purpose techniques: “labeling”. This involves repeating your counter-party’s reality or emotions back to them. Typically you use sentences of the form “It looks/seems like _”. For example, to fugitives holed up in a building in Harem, Voss might say (Clint Eastwood style), “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.”
Labeling, Voss argues, makes your counter-party feel heard, and this in turn defuses their negative emotions while building up a stockpile of precious rapport.
I decided to preface my request for pancakes with some labels:
Me: “What I’m about to ask you is going to seem unfair and cheeky. You’re going to think this Less Penguiny fellow is a real turd burglar. That his parents made a mistake in sparing him the belt. But… would you be willing to give me all of the rest of your pancakes?”
Voss: “…. You know I like pancakes. Everyone knows I’m a pancake man. Always was. Always will be. Famous for it. So you’re asking a lot of me.”
Sensing that I may have moved too fast and over-stepped the line, I say something to set the discussion back on an emotionally solid foundation, one where we can constructively talk about what we both want, where we can both flag problems early:
Me: “Let me say something about this negotiation process: I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly at all times. So please stop me if you feel I’m being unfair and we’ll address it.”
Voss squints at me. I get it. It probably feels weird when someone delivers a line taken verbatim from your book back to you.
Step 3: Gather information
Voss tells us that negotiation is a process of discovery, where the goal is to uncover as much information as possible.
The primary information-gathering technique in Voss’s armory is something he calls “mirroring”. Because he uses the term idiosyncratically compared to the usual meaning of the word in psychology, it’ll be clearer if I call this technique “echoing”.
Me: “You mentioned I was asking a lot of you?”
By repeating the last few words of what your counter-party has said, they are invited to elaborate, and in doing so they will be prone to elaborate on their thinking. The hope is that they drop a loot of juicy information like fallen baddies in a Wolfenstein shooter. Aside from that, the technique is great for building rapport, as demonstrated by its use in the electronic therapist Eliza.
Voss gives the example of a Korean guy working in his company’s semiconductor division but wanting to move to consumer electronics. His boss vetoed the move because “semi-conductors is the best position for you”. But then the Korean continued asking questions (“the best position?”, “what made you decide I should remain in the semiconductor section?”) until his boss eventually made a big reveal: He needed to keep the Korean under his wing as an ally to help lobby headquarters. With that, the Korean discovered he’d be able to switch to consumer electronics as long as he would stay based in headquarters. One could view this gain in information as illustrating the difference between your counter-party’s wants (“I want you to remain in this division.”) and needs (“I need you as an ally for lobbying HQ.”) While you might not be able to offer them what they want, you may be able to offer them what they need. There’s even a Rolling Stones song for that.
Voss: “Yes, you are asking a lot. Considering exhibition #1 that these are *my* pancakes and exhibition #2 that I *want* them, I’m hardly going to just give them away. I barely know you. I’d expect a whole lot more in exchange.”
I had expected Voss to continue talking but he was artfully sparing with his words. This was not unintentional. Pausing sets up tiny awkwardness traps that encourages your counter-party to fill the gaps with talk, potentially dropping more information power-ups.
No problem – I’ll counter with another echo:
Me: “A whole lot more in exchange?”
Voss: “Yes, like a much more significant portion of food. I’m a big guy and I haven’t eaten all day.”
Aha. All that talk about wants and needs paid off. Voss wants the pancake but really he needs more food. This is actionable. Perhaps an offer of money along with a mention of an amazing burger joint nearby could swing him…
In negotiations, it’s usually best not to be the first one to name a figure, especially in markets where you don’t have reliable pricing information. Voss gives the example of author Raymond Chandler brazenly demanding $150/week for a gig, meanwhile his employers had walked into the room prepared to open with $750. The then-inexperienced-at-negotiating author had shot himself in the foot by speaking first.
Time for a showdown:
This wasn’t working.
But wait. It’s important to stay attuned of body language in negotiations. I noticed that Voss had stopped eating his pancakes. This is good. It suggests that he’s open to a deal, despite all his protestations that he’s a famous pancake man. For all I know he could be full and it was all a bluff.
Using this new information, I employ the next technique: the “mislabel”. This consists of completely mislabelling one of your counter-party’s emotions or desires. The expected result is to trigger in your counter-party an impulse to set the record straight. And in doing so they’ll hopefully drop a few nuggets of useful information.
Me: “It seems like you’re not really interested in giving me those pancakes.”
I made sure to smile as I delivered this last line. Maintaining a pleasant air is critical in negotiations. This much is obvious if you’ve ever spent time at a market in a country with a bartering culture. Everything is melodrama, smiles, and fun.
Voss: “No, that’s not it. This is: I’m not authorized to give you that pancake. My boss – who’s out of town attending a Nickelback concert – needs to personally sign off on any pancake transfers larger a single dessert spoon’s worth. EU regulations.“
The good news here was that the mislabel technique fulfilled its mission and produced new information.
The bad news was that I was now up against Great Constraint #1 (my term, not his): an absent decision maker. Although I was skeptical that Voss had a boss, especially one who’d veto pancake transfers, I couldn’t go and deny his claim.
This wasn’t my first exposure to absent decision-maker technique. Years ago I was negotiating a rental contract for a company I co-directed. During negotiations, I told the landlord that I was only authorized (by my non-existent boss) to go so high. If we wanted to close today, that’s the best I could do. The fib worked.
Voss: “As you can see, my hands are truly tied. It’s gonna have to be a ‘no’.”
Before I’d read Never Split the Difference, I viewed “no”s in negotiations as absolute. But Voss argues a “no” more often means something like “I need to talk it over with someone else” or “I am not yet ready to agree” or “Not at that price”. He adds that when people utter the word “no”, they feel they’ve protected themselves. But in the same stroke, they also feel like an opportunity is slipping away from them. Because of this fear, they become more forthcoming and helpful immediately afterward.
I use this space after the “no” to test out another technique, the open-ended how/what question. While it’s common knowledge that open-ended questions deliver more informative responses than yes/no ones, it mightn’t be obvious that where/when/which questions also tend to lead to shorter answers.
Additionally, Voss points out that “why” questions, while certainly open, carry an accusatory connotation and sometimes provoke defensiveness. Therefore they should be reserved for very particular situations when you’ve flipped things around so that any defensiveness would work in your favor (e.g. “Why would you switch suppliers to us when you’ve been with your existing one for 10 years?”)
Me: “What would need to change for this deal to work?”
Step 4: Employ the dark arts
Finally, the juicy stuff! I don’t judge you for skipping straight down to this section. The knife, a tool for murder in a criminal’s hands, saves lives in those of a surgeon.
Voss: *looks down at my feet* “I couldn’t help noticing you’re rocking a retro pair of Nike Air Maxes. I’ll give you the pancakes in exchange for one of your Nikes.”
No business book in the last ten years is complete without a few cameos from the world of cognitive biases. As to be expected, we meet anchoring first, the tendency to focus on an initial “anchor” piece of information, not because it’s rational but simply because it’s there.
In negotiations where you’re forced to name the first figure, Voss advises using an extreme anchor, especially when your counter-party seems like a rookie negotiator.
Personally (this isn’t something Voss talks about) I would distinguish between once-off negotiations (a car, a house) where reputation is mostly irrelevant, and repeat ones where reputation matters (business dealings). An overly extreme anchor could be a bad idea in the latter. But maybe I’m just going for what Voss calls a “wimp-win”.
Anyway, sensing that Voss might have been anchoring by asking for my shoes, I summoned all my willpower to resist. This is not reality. This is not reality. This. Is. Not. Reality.
Before I had the chance to fully recover my bearings, Voss fired another salvo, this time fitted with special loss aversion warheads. (Refresher: Loss aversion is the cognitive bias to prefer avoiding a loss to acquiring an equivalent gain.)
There’s an anecdote in the book where Voss promised some contractors a daily rate of $2000 but later had to revise the figure down to $500. To break the news, he called them up, apologized for screwing up, and said: “Listen. It’s only gonna be $500 now. I know that’s less than you expected, but I still wanted to bring this opportunity to you before I took it to someone else.” By framing the situation as potentially losing $500, Voss claims the contractors were more likely to accept the slash in rates.
Back at the pancake negotiation table, I should point out that earlier that day Voss had given me a signed copy of his book. He’d even drawn a tiny penguin for me. Now his arm reached across the table, towards the book, rubber in hand.
Voss: “I no longer want to personalize the copy of my book without you giving me your Nikes. I’m sorry. It’s just not a good deal for me. I can’t be handing out thoughtful and unique drawings to just everybody. I’d be swamped. And do I look like Father Christmas to you?”
Having already believed I had the personalized penguin drawing in the bag, this latest development left me crestfallen. The psychologists have it right: the specter of a loss hurts far more than the prospect of a gain.
Voss’s next tack was an appeal to the Great Constraint #2: Deadlines. He describes them elegantly as “the screw that pressures every deal to a conclusion”.
Voss: “Let’s get realistic here. These pancakes aren’t getting any warmer. And the staff want to close shop. They are already staring at us. They probably hate us. If we wait much longer, even a doggy-bag might be out of the question…”
Normally I would start to feel panicky at the mention of a deadline. But Voss informs us that most business deadlines are arbitrary and flexible. It’s rarely worth your while caving early and low-balling yourself over their illusory pressure.
Coming back to my senses, I see that even if negotiations drag on, a doggy-bag was always going to be an option. What reasonable waiter would decline a customer’s pre-tip request? Besides, I wasn’t above placing the pancakes in my jacket pocket
The last dark arts technique Voss cast in my direction was something he calls “normative leverage”. The idea is to take a guess as to your counter-party’s moral values then couch your request in those terms. Say another firm refuses to revise its pricing downwards due to unforeseen circumstances, a negotiator might appeal to their “I’m a decent human being” morality by saying “It seems like you don’t care what position you leave me in.”
In other circumstances, you might apply normative leverage by describing your counter-party in a flattering manner. As any fraudulent palm-reader can attest, people lap up positive descriptions of themselves, believing these to be true against all odds. The trick here is that after the attribution of virtue, you sink in a knife tipped with guilt-inducing cognitive dissonance: “It seems like you are the type of person who prides herself on the way she does business—and rightfully so. Your reputation is stellar (Stella). Do you really want to be known as someone who doesn’t fulfill agreements?”
Now it’s Voss’s turn to try this on me:
Voss: “You seem like a very empathetic penguin. I can tell you don’t like being a burden on other life-forms. Considerate type. But by not finishing this deal, you’re keeping all these staff up past their shift ends, denying them their plans for afterward. Is that the kind of mark you want to leave in this world?”
At this point, I really wished I was negotiating over email, as this would buy me time to center myself and resist doing anything impulsive. Voss has already foreseen this tendency in his book, where he writes that face-to-face is the way to go in negotiations, precisely because it keeps the pressure on.
Step 5: Have your counter-party be the one to generate paths forward
In one of his war stories, Voss talks about a kidnapper’s demand that a family member show up that evening with the money. The family member responds, “How am I supposed to show up all the way out there if I have to sell my car to raise the ransom?” Analogously, in business, one might say “How can I continue eating the costs of providing this service to you if you haven’t paid yet?”
By using open-ended how/what questions here, you force the counter-party to see things from your perspective. You employ their problem-solving skills in finding a solution, effectively out-sourcing brain-power. And most importantly of all, they’ll own the solutions generated, so they’ll be more likely to follow through.
Me: “If I give you one of my Nikes, how am I supposed to go home?”
Voss: “Hmm. You could take one of my shoes?”
Me: “But your sneakers are no longer available in stores. Not even for back-orders. I can see they are very nice sneakers. Do you really want to risk that I muddy one on the way home? I have poor vision and often walk into puddles.”
Voss: “Yes yea yes. That’s right! I feel you really understand me!”
Me: “How about a cash offer then? I’ll give you $2 for the pancakes. It’s a great offer. You’re a businessman. You have to see it’s a great offer. And there’s a burger place nearby. You could buy more food there. You haven’t eaten all day. You are hungry.”
Step 6: Pleasantly persist
Perhaps my biggest takeaway from Never Split the Difference was how persistent a negotiator can be. This persistence can be gleaned by reading the many negotiation transcripts peppered throughout the text. Most people would cave in after one or two back-and-forths, but Voss just keeps on going and going.
The limiting factor in sustaining negotiations, aside from self-confidence, is the risk that they become unpleasant. The key is “to disagree without being disagreeable”.
One great way is to vary the ways you say no.
Voss pulls this off masterfully in our negotiations. In the first instance, he adds in some appreciation for my offer:
Voss: “Your offer of $2 is very generous. But I’m sorry. It just doesn’t work for me.”
Me: “Ok… how about $5?”
Voss says “no” the next time by adding in a reason as well as softening the blow with another compliment:
Voss: “You are kind to increase the price, and I really appreciate it. I really wish I could accept that amount, but sincerely it’s not much to me. I am #10 on Amazon right now. Kind of a big deal. But those Nikes are really something special. A rare edition.”
I increase my offer, this time to $6. Voss counters with an open-ended how-question:
Voss: “I’ve noticed that the $6 you are offering is all in coins. But how am I supposed to accept that? When I walk home I’ll sound like a vending machine. What happens if my belt isn’t strong enough to handle the added weight of the coins? Do you want me to be a laughing stock?”
Next I pull out a pen and paper and scribble down some numbers while examining the contents of my wallet.
Once I’m done, I say:
Me: “I’ve just run my numbers. Taking into account what I need for my baby’s diapers and my wife’s heart medicine, the absolute most I can offer you is $7.28. You must understand my baby hasn’t had new diapers in two weeks. It’s getting really gross. My wife says she’ll leave me if I spend our salary on pancakes again. Even though I can’t offer you a penny more, I can throw in an unopened pocket pack of tissues and one stick of blueberry gum.”
I used two more of Voss’s dark arts tricks here. First, I gave an unrounded final number. The precision here suggests the offer is the result of thoughtful calculation, not a guesstimate that can be negotiated away.
Second, I threw in extra non-monetary items, even though I suspected they were of no real value to him. The point is that this last offer signals that I’m at the end of my tether. I’m giving him everything I possibly can, and this causes the counter-party to feel that horridly human sadistic pleasure of squeezing someone for all they’re worth.
Voss: “OK. You got yourself a deal son!”
I dive across the table and devour the contents of his plate, glad to have learned to negotiate.
Overall I had a few gripes with the book. For one there wasn’t much in the way of memorable structure or frameworks (I imposed my own for this review). Second, all the anecdotes ended (suspiciously) with “everyone lived happily ever after”-type endings. Third, there were some seemingly inconsistent prescriptions, like to simultaneously use a downward intonation with an inquisitive voice.
Despite these issues, Chris Voss’s depth of experience made the book worth reading. And his examples, taken from the world of true (or in one case, simulated) crime, are far more gripping than the usual business affair. The book deserves its high sales.
His book is available to buy on Amazon.
Extra content for subscribers: I’ve left out various negotiation hacks from my notes since they didn’t quite fit with the flow of the article. Anyone on my mailing list can access them here. If you’ve already signed up, just enter your address again.