Never Split the Difference

Cover of Never Split the Difference.

Negotiations and bargaining explained by an FBI hostage negotiator – unsurprisingly a book where the show-off anecdotes are gripping. But beneath the standard self-help structure (bits of information sandwiched by ~~boasts~~ stories), there’s a solid core: A general theory of negotiations, explained with plenty of examples. Bonus points for the clear chapter summaries.

The upshot is that neither trying to avoid conflict nor adversarial bare-knuckles approaches are ideal for most negotiations. Instead, focusing on (“tactical”) empathy and open-ended questions is the approach that will help you find good solutions without always resorting to boring lose-lose compromises. Money quote: No deal is better than a bad deal – if you can’t say No, you’ve taken yourself hostage.

Detailed notes below:


Listening is the most important thing you can do. “Tactical empathy” means listening past your preconceived notions of what the other person wants and thinks. You make this easier on yourself if you have multiple hypotheses in mind instead of just one, and then make the other person your entire focus.

Listening intently and well makes others feel safe enough to talk about what they want. That’s important because negotiations are not a battle, they are a process of discovery. If you instead rush things, you build pressure. What you say and do is not as important as how you are, what vibe you project. You want to be relaxed, friendly, slightly playful most of the time, in a way that is true to yourself. When you are like this, you can be very direct and still keep the safe atmosphere. Because everybody wants to feel safe (you get this by listening, understanding, labeling) and in control (you get this by asking them open questions and getting them to say No early).

“The relationship between an emotionally intelligent negotiator and their counterpart is essentially therapeutic.” Once you have understood what the other person really wants, you can reword/mirror/label what they are saying. You validate their experience by acknowledging it. And thereby you interrupt raw emotional intensity.


Mirror what others say, repeating their words or intentions. Mirrors are usually there to convey “please help me understand”. When you mirror what others say, they’ll either feel understood or explain in detail by rephrasing their statement. Feels awkward, but is good.


Label their feelings: Throw out an accurate label, then shut up, wait, listen. No follow-up questions. “It sounds like you enjoy x.” without tacking on “Where did you get it?”. Always go for “It seems”, not “I am hearing that” – this is not about you.

Special form of labeling: The accusation audit. Label their fears in advance. Imagine what they could accuse you of, and put it on the table. “This may sound like I’m a cut-throat asshole with no regard for future business.”, for example.


Agreement and disagreement: “That’s right” and “No”

Get people to say “That’s right”, both by labeling and by summaries. Do not get people to say “You’re right”. One shows a relieved or pleased acknowledgement, the other that you’re not listening.

And also: try to get an honest “No” early – that’s where the actual negotiation begins. People need to be able to say no. They will fight you if it seems like you want to constrain their power to decline. Once they have said no to something, they feel they have agency and control, they are more secure. Also, you won’t feel like a sleazy salesperson who always tries to elicit a “Yes”. If you find no better way, mislabel an emotion or desire. Or just ask: “What would you say no to”.

Special case: “Have you given up on this project?” is a one-sentence email to get a reply when the other party is not talking to you.

Calibrated open-ended questions

Questions make the other party feel in control and get them to solve your problems. Plus, since the answer is theirs, they will support it implicitly. Where yes/no questions are a conversational dead end and trigger expectations of reciprocity, open questions (carefully chosen to nudge in a helpful direction or to uncover new facts) keep conversations alive. Always sound nice, like you’re asking for help, without a hint of anger or resentment.

“How” and “What”. Only use “Why” if you want to spark opposition (because it inevitably sounds like an accusation). Don’t tell people what you want, ask them how to achieve x.

How does this affect the rest of your team? How on board are the people not on this call? What do your colleagues see as their main challenges in this area? What are we up against here? What is the biggest challenge you face? How does making a deal with us affect things? What happens if you do nothing? What does doing nothing cost you? How does making this deal resonate with what your company prides itself on?


Rejecting an offer

Reject an offer with three Nos:

  1. The first step in the “No” series is the old standby: “How am I supposed to do that?” You have to deliver it in a deferential way, so it becomes a request for help.
  2. After that, some version of “Your offer is very generous, I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me”. Apologies are good.
  3. Then you can use something like “I’m sorry but I’m afraid I just can’t do that.” Can add variations like “This is really embarrassing, but I can’t afford that. It’s a fair price!”

Types of negotiators

Of course everybody is a mix etc etc. Details.

Accommodators focus on building relationships. They’re happy while they’re communicating and love the win-win. Want to remain friends even when the deal falls through. Can easily fall into the trap of building great rapport without accomplishing anything. They perceive silence as danger. Dealing with them, be sociable and friendly, use calibrated questions to nudge them to focus on translating talk into action. Be wary that they don’t promise something they can’t deliver. Uncovering their objections can be difficult. If you’re an accommodator: stick to being likable, but don’t sacrifice your objections – others welcome them. Be wary of excess chitchat – the other types don’t like it as much, and other accommodators are prone to be distracted by it.

Assertive negotiators believe time is money, focus on getting things done, are fiery and love winning, often at the expense of others. Direct and candid to the point of aggression, and unworried about future interactions. They value respect, and want to be heard – they can’t listen until they know they’ve been heard. They’re too self-important to have a feeling for reciprocity. Silence as a chance to speak more. Dealing with them, focus on getting a “that’s right”. Use labels and mirrors a lot. If you’re assertive, soften your tone and use calibrated questions instead of abrasive statements.

Analysts work on data, are methodical and diligent, hate surprises and don’t want to be rushed. They can come off as distant and cold, and are hypersensitive to reciprocity. They are skeptical and see silence as a chance to think. Don’t ask them too many questions to start. Use data to drive your reason, don’t ad-lib, and give them a chance to think before responding. Use labels. If you’re an analyst: smile when you speak.


The Ackerman model of haggling that doesn’t end up with the usual “end up in the middle” outcome:

  1. Set your target price
  2. Set your first offer at 65%
  3. Calculate three raises: 85, 95 and 100%, and never use round numbers for the final amount.
  4. Use empathy and the three increasing Nos to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer. Be very sparing about your increases.
  5. On the last offer, add a nonmonetary item (even one they don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.

Black Swans and leverage

Black Swans are unknown unknowns that would entirely change the situation if they became known. Each party has, as a rule, at least three of those. They don’t have to be dramatic. “Your counterpart always has pieces of information whose value they do not understand.” Black Swans are leverage multipliers. You need to get literally at the table, or at least on the phone to discover them. Pay attention before talks start, after they end and in breaks.

When you think the other person is crazy, that’s when you’re close to finding one. People are never crazy, they are ill-informed (you can fix that), constrained or obey interests you don’t know (both of these are black swans).

One Sheet

Prepare a negotiation “one sheet” with five sections.

  1. The goal. Think about best and worst case scenarios, but only put down a specific goal, to prime yourself and to avoid anchoring yourself. Discuss with a colleague if you can, to avoid “wimping out”.
  2. Summary. All known facts that have led up to the negotiation. Why are you there, what do you want? Why are they there, what do they want? If you say these out loud, you have to get a “that’s right” from your counterpart.
  3. Labels. Prepare three to five labels for an accusation audit, anticipating how your counterpart feels about Section 2. Make a concise list of accusations they might make. Then turn each accusation into up to five labels. Examples: See above.
  4. Calibrated questions. Prepare five questions to reveal value to you and your counterpart and identify and overcome deal killers. Be relentlessly curious. Examples: see above. Be ready to follow up the answers with mirrors or labels. Maaaybe work on hypotheses.
  5. Noncash offers. Have a list of noncash items that your counterpart has, that you would have. Have a list of noncash items that you have that you could offer.

Other techniques, misc tips

18/ Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. Short but sweet book on negotiations by a lead FBI hostage negotiator. Solid principles, good examples, very readable. Focuses on "tactical empathy" and open-ended questions instead of sleazy or boring rules. https://books.rixx.de/chris-voss/never-split-the-difference/
18/ Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. Short but sweet book on negotiations by a lead FBI hostage negotiator. Solid principles, good examples, very readable. Focuses on "tactical empathy" and open-ended questions instead of sleazy or boring rules. https://books.rixx.de/chris-voss/never-split-the-difference/ #rixxReads

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