[Book Notes] 20 insights: Never split the difference

In the past 1 year, I have read at least 3 other books on Negotiation. Chris Voss’s “Never Split the Difference” is one of the most highly rated books on amazon.com and, therefore, I had to give it a try. Unfortunately, I felt that the book did not live up to its hype. I felt that Chris Voss was more focused on downplaying the “traditional” negotiation work of other researchers vs. letting his research/approach speak for itself. That being said…I did get some valuable insights from this book and my notes are as follows:



Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make. Listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do

People want to be understood and accepted. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.

[In response to FBI having a large team of people listening in to conversations with terrorists/kidnappers] Students of mine balk at this notion, asking, “Seriously, do you really need a whole team to . . . hear someone out?” The fact that the FBI has come to that conclusion, I tell them, should be a wake-up call. It’s really not that easy to listen well. We are easily distracted. We engage in selective listening, hearing only what we want to hear, our minds acting on a cognitive bias for consistency rather than truth.

For those people who view negotiation as a battle of arguments, it’s the voices in their own head that are overwhelming them. When they’re not talking, they’re thinking about their arguments, and when they are talking, they’re making their arguments. Instead of doing any thinking at all in the early goings about what you’re going to say—make your sole and all encompassing focus the other person and what they have to say.



Assumptions blind, hypotheses guide.

Good negotiators, going in, know they have to be ready for possible surprises; great negotiators aim to use their skills to reveal the surprises they are certain exist. Really smart people often have trouble being negotiators—they’re so smart they think they don’t have anything to discover. Great negotiators are able to question the assumptions that the rest of the involved players accept on faith or in arrogance, and thus remain more emotionally open to all possibilities, and more intellectually agile to a fluid situation.



Mirroring, also called isopraxism, is essentially imitation. It’s another neuro-behavior that humans (and other animals) display in which we copy each other to comfort each other. It’s generally an unconscious behavior—we are rarely aware of it when it’s happening—but it’s a sign that people are bonding, in sync, and establishing the kind of rapport that leads to trust.

It’s a phenomenon (and now technique) that follows a very basic but profound biological principle: We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar. For the FBI, a “mirror” is when you repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman created a study using waiters to identify what was the more effective method of creating a connection with strangers: mirroring or positive reinforcement. One group of waiters, using positive reinforcement, lavished praise and encouragement on patrons using words such as “great,” “no problem,” and “sure” in response to each order. The other group of waiters mirrored their customers simply by repeating their orders back to them. The results were stunning: the average tip of the waiters who mirrored was 70% more than of those who used positive reinforcement.



Instead of denying or ignoring emotions, good negotiators identify and influence them. They are able to precisely label emotions, those of others and especially their own. And once they label the emotions they talk about them without getting wound up. For them, emotion is a tool.

Empathy is “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.” Notice I didn’t say anything about agreeing with the other person’s values and beliefs or giving out hugs. That’s sympathy.

Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow. Labeling is a way of validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it. Give someone’s emotion a name and you show you identify with how that person feels. Labels almost always begin with roughly the same words: It seems like . . . It sounds like . . . It looks like . .

Notice we said “It sounds like . . .” and not “I’m hearing that . . .” That’s because the word “I” gets people’s guard up. When you say “I,” it says you’re more interested in yourself than the other person,

In basic terms, people’s emotions have two levels: the “presenting” behavior is the part above the surface you can see and hear; beneath, the “underlying” feeling is what motivates the behavior. What good negotiators do when labeling is address those underlying emotions. Labeling negatives diffuses them (or defuses them, in extreme cases); labeling positives reinforces them.



Research shows that the best way to deal with negativity is to observe it, without reaction and without judgment. Then consciously label each negative feeling and replace it with positive, compassionate, and solution-based thoughts. In court, defense lawyers do this properly by mentioning everything their client is accused of, and all the weaknesses of their case, in the opening statement. They call this technique “taking the sting out.” The first step of doing so is listing every terrible thing your counterpart could say about you, in what I call an accusation audit.



“No” is the start of the negotiation, not the end of it

We’ve been conditioned to fear the word “No.” But it is a statement of perception far more often than of fact. It seldom means, “I have considered all the facts and made a rational choice.” Instead, “No” is often a decision, frequently temporary, to maintain the status quo. Change is scary, and “No” provides a little protection from that scariness.

Politely saying “No” to your opponent, calmly hearing “No,” and just letting the other side know that they are welcome to say “No” has a positive impact on any negotiation.

This means you have to train yourself to hear “No” as something other than rejection, and respond accordingly.



There are three kinds of “Yes”:

  1. Counterfeit Yes: A counterfeit “yes” is one in which your counterpart plans on saying “no” but either feels “yes” is an easier escape route or just wants to disingenuously keep the conversation going to obtain more information or some other kind of edge

  2. Confirmation Yes:  A confirmation “yes” is generally innocent, a reflexive response to a black-or-white question; it’s sometimes used to lay a trap but mostly it’s just simple affirmation with no promise of action

  3. Commitment Yes: A commitment “yes” is the real deal; it’s a true agreement that leads to action, a “yes” at the table that ends with a signature on the contract. The commitment “yes” is what you want, but the three types sound almost the same so you have to learn how to recognize which one is being used.

Human beings the world over are so used to being pursued for the commitment “yes” as a condition to find out more that they have become masters at giving the counterfeit “yes.”



Whether you call it “buy-in” or “engagement” or something else, good negotiators know that their job isn’t to put on a great performance but to gently guide their counterpart to discover their goal as his own. Using all your skills to create rapport, agreement, and connection with a counterpart is useful, but ultimately that connection is useless unless the other person feels that they are equally as responsible, if not solely responsible, for creating the connection and the new ideas they have.

You use a question that prompts a “No” answer, and your counterpart feels that by turning you down he has proved that he’s in the driver’s seat. Good negotiators welcome—even invite—a solid “No” to start, as a sign that the other party is engaged and thinking.

Gun for a “Yes” straight off the bat, though, and your counterpart gets defensive, wary, and skittish. That’s why I tell my students that, if you’re trying to sell something, don’t start with “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Instead ask, “Is now a bad time to talk?” Either you get “Yes, it is a bad time” followed by a good time or a request to go away, or you get “No, it’s not” and total focus.



Behavioral Change Stairway Model (BCSM): The model proposes five stages—active listening, empathy, rapport, influence, and behavioral change—that take any negotiator from listening to influencing behavior. The origins of the model can be traced back to the great American psychologist Carl Rogers, who proposed that real change can only come when a therapist accepts the client as he or she is—an approach known as unconditional positive regard.



A few weeks after the Haitian kidnapping boom began, we started to notice two patterns. First, Mondays seemed to be especially busy, as if the kidnappers had a particularly strong work ethic and wanted to get a jump on the week. And, second, the thugs grew increasingly eager to get paid as the weekend approached. At first, this didn’t make any sense. But by listening closely to the kidnappers and debriefing the hostages we rescued, we discovered something that should have been obvious: These crimes weren’t politically motivated at all. Instead, these guys were garden-variety thugs who wanted to get paid by Friday so they could party through the weekend

Car dealers are prone to give you the best price near the end of the month, when their transactions are assessed. And corporate salespeople work on a quarterly basis and are most vulnerable as the quarter comes to a close.

In his bestselling 1980 book, You Can Negotiate Anything, negotiation expert Herb Cohen tells the story of his first big business deal, when his company sent him to Japan to negotiate with a supplier. When he arrived, his counterparts asked him how long he was staying, and Cohen said a week. For the next seven days, his hosts proceeded to entertain him with parties, tours, and outings—everything but negotiation. In fact, Cohen’s counterparts didn’t start serious talks until he was about to leave, and the two sides hammered out the deal’s final details in the car to the airport. Cohen landed in the United States with the sinking feeling that he’d been played, and that he had conceded too much under deadline pressure. Would he have told them his deadline in retrospect? No, Cohen says, because it gave them a tool he didn’t have: “They knew my deadline, but I didn’t know theirs.”

Knowing how negotiators use their counterpart’s deadlines to gain leverage would seem to suggest that it’s best to keep your own deadlines secret. And that’s the advice you’ll get from most old-school negotiation experts.

In fact, Don A. Moore, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, says that hiding a deadline actually puts the negotiator in the worst possible position. In his research, he’s found that hiding your deadlines dramatically increases the risk of an impasse. That’s because having a deadline pushes you to speed up your concessions, but the other side, thinking that it has time, will just hold out for more.

Moore discovered that when negotiators tell their counterparts about their deadline, they get better deals. It’s true. First, by revealing your cutoff you reduce the risk of impasse. And second, when an opponent knows your deadline, he’ll get to the real deal and concession making more quickly.

Example from this article by Don Moore:

One of the most natural deadlines to use is your counterpart’s eagerness to get home at the end of the day, as Robert Ippolito, executive vice president of operations at Pacific Cycle, described in 2000 in MBA Jungle magazine:

On one of my first business trips to China, I had a meeting with the head of a factory to work out a large purchase. I arrived at 9:00 a.m. This guy was stubborn as hell, and we spent seven hours haggling. At a few minutes before 5:00, he started making concessions, and we were able to sign the deal. I turned to my interpreter and asked why we couldn’t have closed the deal at 9:30 rather than at 5:00. He told me that the official had no incentive to wrap up earlier in the day, but now he wanted to go home. The next time I visited that factory, I scheduled our meeting for 4:00, and things went fast and easy. Now when I walk into any negotiation, I announce that I have another appointment in, say, one hour. If that hour comes and goes and I feel it’s to my benefit to stay, I ask to borrow a phone, call my secretary, and tell her to rebook my “other appointment.” This only adds to my power in the negotiation because the other party sees it as an act of good faith, even as a concession.


Human neural activity, particularly in the emotion-regulating insular cortex, reflects the degree of unfairness in social interactions. Even nonhuman primates are hardwired to reject unfairness.

In fact, of the three ways that people drop this F-bomb (fairness bomb), only one is positive:

  1. The most common use is a judo-like defensive move that destabilizes the other side. This manipulation usually takes the form of something like, “We just want what’s fair.”

  2. The second use of the F-bomb is more nefarious. In this one, your counterpart will basically accuse you of being dense or dishonest by saying, “We’ve given you a fair offer.”

  3. The last use of the F-word is my favorite because it’s positive and constructive. It sets the stage for honest and empathetic negotiation. Here’s how I use it: Early on in a negotiation, I say, “I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly at all times. So please stop me at any time if you feel I’m being unfair, and we’ll address it.”



In a tough negotiation, it’s not enough to show the other party that you can deliver the thing they want. To get real leverage, you have to persuade them that they have something concrete to lose if the deal falls through. So start out with an accusation audit acknowledging all of their fears. By anchoring their emotions in preparation for a loss, you inflame the other side’s loss aversion so that they’ll jump at the chance to avoid it.



The tendency to be anchored by extreme numbers is a psychological quirk known as the “anchor and adjustment” effect. Researchers have discovered that we tend to make adjustments from our first reference points. For example, most people glimpsing 8 × 7 × 6 × 5 × 4 × 3 × 2 × 1 estimate that it yields a higher result than the same string in reverse order. That’s because we focus on the first numbers and extrapolate.

Research shows that people who hear extreme anchors unconsciously adjust their expectations in the direction of the opening number. Many even go directly to their price limit.

Columbia Business School psychologists found that job applicants who named a range received significantly higher overall salaries than those who offered a number, especially if their range was a “bolstering range,” in which the low number in the range was what they actually wanted. Understand, if you offer a range (and it’s a good idea to do so) expect them to come in at the low end.

The biggest thing to remember is that numbers that end in 0 inevitably feel like temporary placeholders, guesstimates that you can easily be negotiated off of. But anything you throw out that sounds less rounded—say, $37,263—feels like a figure that you came to as a result of thoughtful calculation.

The more you talk about non-salary terms, the more likely you are to hear the full range of their options. If they can’t meet your non-salary requests, they may even counter with more money, like they did with a French-born American former student of mine. She kept asking—with a big smile—for an extra week of vacation beyond what the company normally gave. She was “French,” she said, and that’s what French people did. The hiring company was completely handcuffed on the vacation issue, but because she was so darned delightful, and because she introduced a non-monetary variable into the notion of her value, they countered by increasing her salary offer.

Ask: “What does it take to be successful here?” The key issue here is if someone gives you guidance, they will watch to see if you follow their advice. They will have a personal stake in seeing you succeed. You’ve just recruited your first unofficial mentor.



We learned that successful negotiation involved getting your counterpart to do the work for you and suggest your solution himself. It involved giving him the illusion of control while you, in fact, were the one defining the conversation. The tool we developed is something I call the calibrated, or open-ended, question. What it does is remove aggression from conversations by acknowledging the other side openly, without resistance. In doing so, it lets you introduce ideas and requests without sounding pushy. It allows you to nudge.

Instead of asking some closed-ended question with a single correct answer, he’d asked an open-ended, yet calibrated one that forced the other guy to pause and actually think about how to solve the problem. I thought to myself, This is perfect! It’s a natural and normal question, not a request for a fact. It’s a “how” question, and “how” engages because “how” asks for help.

Giving your counterpart the illusion of control by asking calibrated questions—by asking for help—is one of the most powerful tools for suspending unbelief. The greatest-of-all-time calibrated questions: “How am I supposed to do that?” The real beauty of calibrated questions is the fact that they offer no target for attack like statements do.

Calibrated questions avoid verbs or words like “can,” “is,” “are,” “do,” or “does.” These are closed- ended questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or a “no.” Instead, they start with a list of words people know as reporter’s questions: “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how.” Those words inspire your counterpart to think and then speak expansively.

But let me cut the list even further: it’s best to start with “what,” “how,” and sometimes “why.” Nothing else. “Who,” “when,” and “where” will often just get your counterpart to share a fact without thinking. And “why” can backfire. Regardless of what language the word “why” is translated into, it’s accusatory. There are very rare moments when this is to your advantage.

Who has control in a conversation, the guy listening or the guy talking? The listener, of course. That’s because the talker is revealing information while the listener, if he’s trained well, is directing the conversation toward his own goals. He’s harnessing the talker’s energy for his own ends.



I’m positive that sometime in your life you’ve been involved in a negotiation where you got a “Yes” that later turned out to be a “No.” Maybe the other party was lying to you, or maybe they were just engaged in wishful thinking. Either way, this is not an uncommon experience. This happens because there are actually three kinds of “Yes”: Commitment, Confirmation, and Counterfeit. So many pushy salesman try to trap their clients into the Commitment “Yes” that many people get very good at the Counterfeit “Yes.

The Rule of Three is simply getting the other guy to agree to the same thing three times in the same conversation. It’s tripling the strength of whatever dynamic you’re trying to drill into at the moment. In doing so, it uncovers problems before they happen. It’s really hard to repeatedly lie or fake conviction.



In a study of the components of lying, Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra and his coauthors found that, on average, liars use more words than truth tellers and use far more third-person pronouns. They start talking about him, her, it, one, they, and their rather than I, in order to put some distance between themselves and the lie.

And they discovered that liars tend to speak in more complex sentences in an attempt to win over their suspicious counterparts. It’s what W. C. Fields meant when he talked about baffling someone with bullshit. The researchers dubbed this the Pinocchio Effect because, just like Pinocchio’s nose, the number of words grew along with the lie. People who are lying are, understandably, more worried about being believed, so they work harder—too hard, as it were—at being believable.

The use of pronouns by a counterpart can also help give you a feel for their actual importance in the decision and implementation chains on the other side of the table. The more in love they are with “I,” “me,” and “my” the less important they are. Picking up a lot of “we,” “they,” and “them,” it’s more likely you’re dealing directly with a savvy decision maker keeping his options open.



People fall into three broad categories:

  1. Analysts are methodical and diligent. They are not in a big rush. Instead, they believe that as long as they are working toward the best result in a thorough and systematic way, time is of little consequence. Their self-image is linked to minimizing mistakes. Their motto: As much time as it takes to get it right.

  2. Accommodators: The most important thing to this type of negotiator is the time spent building the relationship. Accommodators think as long as there is a free-flowing continuous exchange of information time is being well spent.

  3. The Assertive type believes time is money; every wasted minute is a wasted dollar. Their self-image is linked to how many things they can get accomplished in a period of time. For them, getting the solution perfect isn’t as important as getting it done.

The greatest obstacle to accurately identifying someone else’s style is what I call the “I am normal” paradox. That is, our hypothesis that the world should look to others as it looks to us. After all, who wouldn’t make that assumption?



The Ackerman model is an offer-counteroffer method, at least on the surface. But it is a very effective system for beating the usual lackluster bargaining dynamic, which has the predictable result of meeting in the middle. The systematized and easy-to-remember process has only four steps:

  1. Set your target price (your goal).

  2. Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target price

  3. Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95, and 100 percent)

  4. Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer

  5. When calculating the final amount, use precise, non-round numbers like, say, $37,893 rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight

  6. On your final number, throw in a non-monetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show you’re at your limit



One way to understand leverage is as a fluid that sloshes between the parties. As a negotiator you should always be aware of which side, at any given moment, feels they have the most to lose if negotiations collapse. The party who feels they have more to lose and are the most afraid of that loss has less leverage, and vice versa.

  1. Positive leverage is quite simply your ability as a negotiator to provide—or withhold—things that your counterpart wants.

  2. Negative leverage is what most civilians picture when they hear the word “leverage.” It’s a negotiator’s ability to make his counterpart suffer.This sort of leverage gets people’s attention because of a concept we’ve discussed: loss aversion

  3. Normative leverage is using the other party’s norms and standards to advance your position.



A few years ago, I stumbled upon the book How to Become a Rainmaker, and I like to review it occasionally to refresh my sense of the emotional drivers that fuel decisions. The book does a great job to explain the sales job not as a rational argument, but as an emotional framing job. If you can get the other party to reveal their problems, pain, and unmet objectives—if you can get at what people are really buying—then you can sell them a vision of their problem that leaves your proposal as the perfect solution. Look at this from the most basic level. What does a good babysitter sell, really? It’s not child care exactly, but a relaxed evening. A furnace salesperson? Cozy rooms for family time. A locksmith? A feeling of security. Know the emotional drivers and you can frame the benefits of any deal in language that will resonate.



When negotiating with a foreigner, it’s common practice for a Japanese businessman to use a translator even when he understands perfectly what the other side is saying. That’s because speaking through a translator forces him to step back. It gives him time to frame his response.


People always make more effort to implement a solution when they think it’s theirs. That is simply human nature. That’s why negotiation is often called “the art of letting someone else have your way.”


Letting your counterpart anchor first will give you a tremendous feel for him. All you need to learn is how to take the first punch.


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


Driving toward “that’s right” is a winning strategy in all negotiations. But hearing “you’re right” is a disaster.