Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depends On It

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depends On It
By: Chris Voss with Tahl Raz

Life is negotiation. The majority of the interactions we have at work and at home are negotiations.  Your career, your finances, your reputation, your love life, even the fate of your kids – at some point all hinge on your ability to negotiate. 

Be a Mirror

Tactical empathy is the centerpiece to negotiation.  It begins with listening to the other party, validating their concerns and emotions, building trust, and creating a safe environment for them.  Make your sole purpose and focus the other person and what they have to say.

Use the late-night FM DJ voice to calm and reassure the other person.  It is deep, soft, slow, and reassuring.  It eases confrontation. 

Most of the time you should be using a positive/playful voice.  It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person with an attitude that is light and encouraging.

Use a direct/assertive voice rarely as it has the potential to create pushback.

Mirroring the other person works magic. People are attracted to what’s similar, and distrustful of things that seem different. This can be speech patterns, body language, words, tempo and tone of voice.  Repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said.

How to get your way in 5 steps:

  1. Use the late-night FM DJ voice.
  2. Start with “I’m sorry…” 
  3. Mirror.  For example, your boss asks for two copies.  You mirror this back with an “I’m sorry, you want to copies?  Please help me understand.”
  4. Silence. At least four seconds, to let the mirror work its magic on your counterpart.
  5. Repeat.

Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of the other party at the moment, and hearing what is behind those feelings so that you can increase your influence in all the moments that follow.  It’s emotional intelligence on steroids.

You employ tactical empathy by recognizing and verbalizing the person’s emotions in the given situation.  In negotiation this is called labeling.  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 the person feels.

Don’t Feel Their Pain, Label It

Once you’ve spotted an emotion you want to highlight, the next step is to label it aloud. Labels can be phrased as statements or questions. Labels almost always begin with:

It seems like…

It sounds like…

It looks like…

Labeling negatives diffuse them, and labeling positives reinforce them. Labeling helps de-escalate situations because it acknowledges the other party’s feelings rather than continuing to act them out.

If you mess up acknowledge it, “Forgive me father for I have sinned.”

If someone is angered by you say, “Look, I’m a jerk.”

Addressing your grumpy grandfather, “We don’t see each other all that often. It seems like you feel like we don’t pay any attention to you. For us this is a real treat.  We want to hear what you have to talk about.”

Research shows that the best way to deal with negativity is to observe it, without reaction, and without judgement.  Then consciously label each negative feeling and replace it with positive, compassionate, and solution-based thoughts.

Use labeling and tactical empathy to get a free seat upgrade on a flight.  Ryan says, “Well, it seems like you’ve been handling the rough day well.  I was also affected by the weather delays and missed my connecting flight.  It seems like this flight is likely booked solid, but with what you said, maybe someone affected by the weather might miss this connection.  Is there any possibility a seat will be open?”

 “No” is Pure Gold

“Yes” is often a meaningless answer that hides deeper objections.  Pushing for a hard “Yes” doesn’t get a negotiator closer to a win; it just angers the other side.

For good negotiators, “No” is pure gold.  “No” provides a great opportunity for you and the other party to clarify what you really want by eliminating what you don’t want.

 “No” real meanings:

  • I am not yet ready to agree
  • You are making me feel uncomfortable
  • I do not understand
  • I don’t think I can afford it
  • I want something else
  • I need more information
  • I want to talk it over with someone else

Ask solution-based questions, “What about this doesn’t work for you?”

“No” has a lot of skills:

  • It allows the real issues to be brought forth
  • It protects people from making ineffective decisions
  • It slows things down so that people can freely embrace their decisions and the agreements they enter into
  • It helps people feel safe, secure, emotionally comfortable, and in control of their decisions
  • It moves everyone’s efforts forward

That’s why “Is now a bad time to talk?” is always better than “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

If someone ignores you, provoke a “No.”

Say a business partner is ignoring you or unresponsive to your emails.  Sending them this one-sentence email works magic, “Have you given up on this project?” This plays to the person’s natural aversion to loss.  It offers the other party the feeling of safety and the illusion of control while encouraging them to define their position and explain it to you.

Trigger Two Words

Two words that can transform any negotiation are “That’s right.”  They are better than “Yes.” 

Label emotions, paraphrase, and summarize what the other person says to trigger a “that’s right.”

Summarizing and repeating the concerns of the other party in a negotiation is the best way to get them to agree to a solution.

Bend Their Reality

The most powerful word in negotiations is “Fair.” As human beings, we’re mightily swayed by how much we feel we have been respected.  People comply with agreements if they feel they’ve been treated fairly and lash out if they don’t.

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.”

If you find yourself in this situation, the best reaction is to simply mirror the “Fair” that has been just lobbed at you. “Fair?” you’d respond, pausing to let the word’s power do to them as it was intended to do to you.  Follow that with a label: “It seems like you’re ready to provide the evidence that supports that.”

The best way to use fair is in a positive and constructive way to set the stage for an honest and empathetic negotiation.  Early on in the negotiation 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.”

The chance for loss incites more risk than the possibility of an equal gain.  To get real leverage, you have to persuade the other person that they have something concrete to lose.

You can bend your counterpart’s reality by anchoring his starting point.  Before you make an offer, emotionally anchor them by saying how bad it will be.  For example say, “I‘ve got a lousy proposition for you.  Still, I wanted to bring this opportunity to you before I took it to someone else.”

When you get to the numbers, let the other person go first if possible.  Just be careful when you let the other person anchor.  You have to prepare yourself psychically to withstand the first offer. 

If you set the anchor in the negotiation you can set an extreme anchor to make your “real” offer seem reasonable, or use a range to seem less aggressive.

Create the Illusion of Control

Avoid questions that can be answered with “Yes” or tiny pieces of information. Ask calibrated questions that start with “How” or “What.”  By implicitly asking the other party for help, these questions will give your counterpart the illusion of control, convince them to solve shared problems, and will inspire them to speak at length, revealing important information. 

A great question to ask is, “How am I supposed to do that?”

Here are some other great calibrated questions:

  • How does this look to you?
  • What caused you to do it?
  • What is the biggest challenge you face?
  • What about this is important to you?
  • How can I help to make this better for us?
  • How would you like me to proceed?
  • What is it that brought us into this situation?
  • How can we solve this problem?
  • What’s the objective/What are we trying to accomplish here?

Use “How” Questions

Ask calibrated “How” questions and ask them again and again.  Asking “How” keeps your counterparts engaged but off balance.  Answering them gives them the illusion of control.  It will allow them to contemplate your problems when making their demands.

Use “How” questions to shape the negotiating environment.  You do this by using, “How can I do that?” as a gentle version of no. This will subtly push your counterpart to search for other solutions – your solutions.  And very often it will get them to bid against themselves.

Another great “How” question is, “How will we know we’re on track?”  Then summarize their answers and then you’ll get a “That’s right.”

The 7-38-55 Percent Rule

Follow the 7-38-55 Percent Rule.  The rule states that 7 percent of a message is based on the words, 38 percent comes from the tone of voice, and 55 percent from the speaker’s body language and face.

Pay close attention to the other party’s tone of voice and body language.  Incongruence between the words and nonverbal signs will show when your counterpart is lying or uncomfortable with a deal.

The Rule of Three

The Rule of Three is simply getting the other party to agree to the same thing three times in the same conversation.  It’s really hard to repeatedly lie or fake conviction.

Use calibrated questions, summaries, and labels to get your counterpart to reaffirm their agreement at least three times.

Pay Attention to Pronouns

A person’s use of pronouns offers deep insights into his or her relative authority.  If you’re hearing a lot of “I,” “me,” and “my,” the real power to decide probably lies elsewhere.  Picking up a lot of “we,” “they,” and “them,” it’s more likely you’re dealing with a savvy decision maker keeping his options open.

Use Your Name

Use your name to make yourself a real person to the other side and even get your own personal discount.  Humor and humanity are the best ways to break the ice and remove roadblocks. 


  • Have a tense exchange with someone?  Hold out your hand and introduce yourself, “My name is Chris.”  You now become Chris and not just some person.
  • Ask for a discount and get a “no” then say, “My name is Chris.  What’s the Chris discount?”

Bargain Hard

Top negotiators know that conflict is often the path to great deals.  And the best find ways to have fun engaging in it.  Conflict brings out truth, creativity, and resolution.

Identify your counterpart’s negotiation style:

  • Accommodator – The most important thing for this type of negotiator is the time spent building the relationship.  As long as their communicating, they’re happy.  Their goal is to be on great terms with their counterpart.  They love the win-win.
  • Analyst – They 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.  They prefer to work on their own and rarely show emotion.
  • Assertive – They believe 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.  Most of all, the Assertive want to be heard and won’t listen to others until they feel they’ve been heard.  They focus on their own goals and tell rather than ask.

Prepare for the negotiation.  Plan out labels, calibrated questions, and responses.  When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion; you fall to your highest level of preparation.

Ackerman Model

The Ackerman Model is an offer-counteroffer method that involves these six 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.

Before you head into a negotiation, carefully prepare your Ackerman plan.

Find the Black Swan

Black Swans are hidden elements that can totally change the negotiation if uncovered and used.

Black swans are leverage multipliers, there are three types of leverage:

  • Positive leverage: The ability to give someone what they want.
  • Negative leverage: The ability to hurt someone.
  • Normative leverage: Using your counterpart’s norms to bring them around e.g. religion, values, standards.

Discovering Black Swans that give you normative leverage can be as easy as questioning the other party’s beliefs and actively listening. You want to absorb what they say and mirror it back to them.

As a negotiator, you need to instill that element of fear in the other party which makes them feel like they have everything to lose if the deal falls through.

Similarity Principle

Research shows that we trust people more when we view them as being similar or familiar.  When our counterpart displays attitudes, beliefs, ideas, etc. that are similar to our own, we tend to like and trust them more.  So dig for what makes them tick and show that you share common ground.

Leave a Reply