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Book Review: Never Split the Difference

Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, by Chris Voss

This past weekend I spent my Sunday reading, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, by Chris Voss. In it, Voss draws on his more than twenty years as a lead FBI hostage negotiator to impart techniques and strategies that can be as effective for the reader in negotiating a rent reduction, a salary increase, or first-class plane ticket, as they were for him in saving lives. While at times overly self-congratulatory (your consulting rates are high, I get it), the exciting stories and the principles they illuminate make it a worthwhile read.

The most interesting thing about reading a book on negotiating is that it brings explicit logic and structure to a pervasive activity we engage in primarily through intuition and instinct. And, if Voss’s book taught me anything, it’s that our intuitions are not a particularly reliable source of wisdom when it comes to getting what we want, when we want it, at a price we can afford.

  • We talk when we should listen. “Instead of prioritizing your argument…make your sole and all-encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say.”

  • We confront when we should collaborate. “The person across the table is never the problem. The unsolved issue is. So focus on the issue.”

  • We rush when we should relax. “Deadlines are often arbitrary, almost always flexible, and hardly ever trigger the consequences we think – or are told – they will.”

  • We solve when we should suggest. “You see, the whole call had been about me and my ego and not the caller. But the only way to get these callers to take action was to have them own the conversation, to believe that they were coming to these conclusions…and that the voice at the other end was simply a medium for those realizations.”

  • We concede when we should question. “Think back to the last time someone made this implicit accusation of unfairness to you, and I bet [it] triggered feelings of defensiveness and discomfort. These feelings are subconscious and often lead to an irrational concession.”

During my read of Voss’s novel – which is part field-guide, part action-thriller (and part sales pitch) – any time I could applaud myself for intuitively adhering to one of his suggested tactics, I had to chastise myself just as quickly for violating another. As I reflected on the toughest negotiations of my business career, I realized with embarrassment that I’d often considered negotiating to be something I could “wing” – something that a smart, literate, well-spoken person with domain mastery should be able to do on the fly. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Most smart people are duped by their own “intelligence” into asking fewer questions, ignoring more information, and assuming their counterparts perceive facts “rationally” the same way they do. But, the way to win a negotiation, Voss assures us, is not to outsmart, outwit, or outlast, but rather to out-prepare. As Voss states plainly:

"When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion; you fall to your highest level of preparation."

The systematic psychological biases underlying negotiation are many, as are the methods we can use to manipulate them in our favor. But, without meticulous preparation, planning, and practice, when the crux moment arrives, you’ll be the one being manipulated.


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