Negotiating with human nature

Any business that involves interpersonal relationships will inevitably involve negotiation. Conflicting visions, wills, and interests will crop up and must be navigated with care. In Never Split the Difference, former FBI kidnapping negotiator Chris Voss teaches how to use empathy to connect with your counterparts and win negotiations in every situation.

Voss’s big personality looms large in the book. He spent several decades as the FBI’s top hostage negotiator, interacting in countless negotiations with kidnappers, terrorists, and other criminals and honing what he calls “tactical empathy.” The basic premise of this is that human nature is universal and the same techniques that work on bloodthirsty terrorists also work in the corporate world or anywhere else that negotiations arise.

The key principle of “tactical empathy” is understanding that people negotiate based on emotions as much as, if not more than, on the basis of rational self-interest. Terrorists are generally not looking for a win-win situation where everybody leaves the negotiation happy. In situations like this it’s impossible to split the difference, so Voss would instead opt for a strategy that targeted his counterpart’s emotions.

He would start by asking open-ended questions to buy time and through his counterparts off. Then he would attempt to establish rapport primarily through the technique of mirroring, that is repeating back to his interlocutor what they had just said. A powerful concept Voss explores is that people are very reluctant to say “Yes” to someone else. A “Yes” is understood to be some kind of concession on a fundamental level, and if you pursue that in negotiations it can cause your counterpart to shut down.

Instead, he advocates using techniques of mirroring and targeted empathy to see things from your counterpart’s perspective, state that perspective back to them, and then tease out an affirmative “That’s right” from your opponent. This technique gets them to form a subtle emotional connection and rapport with you without even realizing it and empowers you to win in negotiations without splitting the difference or compromising.

Given the author’s background, the book is written in an anecdote-rich style. The practical principles of negotiation are at times difficult to discern or must be worked out from the hundredth story of how Voss managed to establish rapport with a kidnapper and defuse the situation. This aspect of the book can get a bit tedious, if you’re just looking for actionable advice to put into practice. It’s not a straightforward manual by any means

That said, the stories can be pretty engaging and intense. And the practical principles are there. All in all, Never Split the Difference sheds light on how the irrational and emotional sides of human nature impact our decision making and how to exploit these to win negotiations.

Never Split the Difference is available for purchase here.

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