Never Split the Difference: Summary & Review

never split the difference

Never Split the Difference (2016) is a book on negotiation techniques in which Chris Voss, the author, makes the case that psychology, empathy, and rapport play a crucial role that has been long neglected and misunderstood.

Bullet Summary

  • Don’t negotiate as if emotions didn’t exist: they do exist and are often part of the problem you must tackle
  • Use empathy: put yourself in the other person’s shoes and label their feelings
  • Make the other feel powerful, listen to them, summarize what they’ve just said until they say “that’s right” and ask “how” and “what” questions

Full Summary

About The Author: Christopher Voss is a former FBI negotiator turned into a businessman, public speaker, lecturer, and author.

The 3 Voice Tones

Chris Voss says there are three types of voices available to negotiators:

  1. Late-night “FM DJ voice”
  2. Positive playful
  3. Direct and assertive tone of voice

The assertive one should be used sparingly as it says that you are trying to assert dominance either aggressively or passive-aggressively and people tend to push back.
Most of the time you should be using the positive and playful.

For more on voice check out:

Empathy to Win Negotiation

The author says that the old approach of “leaving the feelings outside of the negotiation” makes no sense.

How can you leave the feelings outside when feelings are part and parcel of the human experience and when feelings often are the main problem?

He says instead that a great negotiator always has empathy for the other side. That doesn’t mean you agree, but it means you put yourself in his shoes.

Also, see this post on smart collaboration:

Life Strategy: The Enlightened Collaborator

Label Their Feelings

Once you recognize the feelings the other person must be feeling, you should put them into words and tell them about them.

In the book’s example, with fugitives holed in inside a house, it was:

Chris Voss: It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail


Chris Voss: It seems like you’re worried if you open the door they will come with guns blazing

Labeling decreases the intensity of the emotions.

Steps of Difficult Negotiations

  1. Focus on clearing barriers to the agreement (why they don’t want a deal is more powerful than why they want)
  2. Label barrier or mirror the statement
  3. Pause (let them talk and gather intel)

Allow Them To Say No

If the other person has a chance of saying no he is feeling safe and secure.

The mistake many salespeople do is to force a yes, which often is a hollow yes that will not lead to any follow-up.

Dump The Yes Ladder: Use the No Ladder

The author takes aim at the yes ladder and says that in spite of everyone raving about it, it’s not the best sales tool because the final yes is not sincere.

Much better to let the prospect start with a no and empower him to choose the final yes instead after a series of “no” that makes him feel in charge.

Example of NO Ladder

So, for example, when calling for campaign donations against the sitting president the caller would start by saying:

You: Do you think the best day for America are ahead?
Him: No
You: And are you letting Obama sit in office without a fight?
Him: No

And then the caller would say: if you want to do something today to make sure that doesn’t happen, you can give to the X committee, which is fighting hard for you not to make that happen.

The “no” script got a 23% higher return rate.

Make the Other Party Say No

The author says you must phrase your question to make the other party say no.

You can do it by saying something obviously wrong, like for example:

So it seems like you are really eager to leave your job

Or you could talk about what they don’t want.

Make Them Say “That’s Right”

When they say “you’re right” it’s bad.
You say “you’re right” when you don’t own the conclusion… And when you plan on doing nothing about it.
When people say “that’s right” instead you’re doing great.

Don’t Use Deadlines as Weapons

Chriss Voss takes aim at an old cliche of the negotiating theory: that you should hide your deadline or that will give an advantage to the other party.
He says hiding deadlines increase the risk of an impasse and they work both ways.

My Note:
I also find that a bit imprecise. As Roger Dawson says in Secrets of Power Negotiating, deadlines help the party with the most options and damage the party with fewer options (or who wants the deal the most).

You Must Learn About The Other Party

There is no encompassing form or fairness that everyone recognizes and none of us is really rational.
If you approach the negotiation table thinking the other party has your same opinion on what’s a good deal or what’s fair, you’re wrong.

Using Fairness As Manipulative Technique

Chris Voss says that people who utter “we just want what’s fair” are using it as a manipulation negotiation technique to get a concession from you.
I loved how the author uses it:

I want you to feel like I’m being fair at all times, so please stop me if you like I’m being unfair and we’ll address it

For more manipulative negotiation techniques also read:

20 Manipulative Negotiation Tactics

Anchor Their Emotions Low

If you need to offer something lower than expected, preface it by saying what you’re about to tell them might be shocking and they won’t like it.
That you’re terribly sorry.
Then, once you set your expectations very low, you can say:

but before I take it to someone else, I wanted to at least let you know. Here is what I can offer.

Faced with the options of nothing or something and having their expectations much lowered, they will take you up on the offer.

The Tit for Tat Blunder

You have been taught negotiations all wrong.

The author says that much of Western negotiation rests on the mistaken assumption that you always have to ask for something back.
Or that when you give something, you must necessarily get something back.

That paralyzed his team’s effectiveness, he says.
For example, they wouldn’t ask the kidnapper to put hostages on the phone for fear that they would say no and that they’d be embarrassed.
And they wouldn’t ask much for fear they’d have to give something back. Everything was a race for the negotiator: if you ask, then you owe.

Make Them Feel in Charge With Calibrated Questions

Calibrated questions start with “how” and “what” and are designed to open up dialogue, make the other party feel in charge, and let them negotiate with themselves.
Some examples are:

  • What caused you to do it (instead of accusatory “why did you do it”)
  • What did you have in mind when you…
  • How could we go about doing it

Avoid “why” questions as they seem accusatory. And bite your tongue and never overreact.

There is great power in treating jerks with deference

Reinforce Commitment With The Rule of 3

Earlier we saw how useless are empty yeses.
To confirm and strengthen the commitment to a course of action instead, let them confirm the resolution three times.

  1. First time they propose or agree to something, that’s number one
  2. Second time you summarize and let them confirm with “that’s right”
  3. Third time you ask a calibrated “how” or “what” question about the implementation

The Three Types of Negotiators

There are three types of different psychology and dispositions when it comes to negotiating:

  1. Accommodators
  2. Assertive
  3. Analysts

It’s a common mistake to think that assertive are the most successful.

Each style can be successful, but to reach your peak potential you need elements from all three styles.
A study also shows that 65% of some of the most successful negotiators are accommodators.

Some Real Life Examples

I had written a few posts before here on real-life negotiation.
Without ever having read “Never Split the Difference” before, I realize that most of the techniques I used there were exactly what Chris Voss recommends.
Check them out:

And a few sneakier tricks:

In a way, Never Split the Difference also vibes well with How to Win Friends and Influence People in that it seeks to save people’s faces and avoid needless escalation.
Here is a good example of when such an approach would have worked wonders:

Real-Life Applications

Keep this one in mind:

  • The More They Say “I” the Less Power They Have

I loved this rule of thumb.
The more someone says “I” trying to sound more powerful, the more likely it is they’re clueless and have little actual power.
More shrewd people use “we”, “they” and “them”.


  • A Bit Braggart

My personal feeling is that the author came across as conceited at times.
The ways he says “they’re wrong” or “you’re wrong” gives me a feeling of someone who’s taking the higher ground on the reader.
Talking about a “student of his” who did a mistake, he is careful to highlight “this is before he was a student of mine”. And I felt that was unnecessary.

  • Some Bad Suggestions (or at left, very risky)

In an effort to make the other party say no to make him feel in charge, the author uses the sentence:

it seems like you really want this project to fail.

That’s not a good idea in my opinion because it won’t just push the other party to say no, but it will also actively make them dislike you.

There was also a rent negotiation example, with the student/renter talking to the real estate agent. And the student, to make the agent say no, tells him

it seems like you would rather run the risk of keeping the place unrented

That is a barely veiled threat and sounds very confrontational to me (in spite of the author presenting his method as “working along” instead of ever risking an escalation).

  • Seems a Bit Simplistic at Times

At times it feels to me like “Never Split the Difference” is a bit shallow and simplistic.
It stresses so much these little moments of interaction as if they were the big secrets to changing everything.

The pause after you say X or the words “that’s right” in the author’s opinion are the turning moment of all successful negotiations.
As if all of them were infallible. And as if someone could not use different words to convey the same meaning (ie.: “that makes sense” instead of “that’s right”).

  • Unfocused

Never Split the Difference is a book with lots of genius, but sometimes it feels like it’s disorganized genius.
I had so many notes after reading it, but putting everything together to make sense of it felt like a major task on my part -whereas it should have probably been on the editor’s part-.


Lots of Genius 
Never Split the Difference is one of the best books on negotiation. Chris Voss has a great grasp of human psychology and uses it effectively.

Brings Emotions to The Fore
I suppose that for several years, in many classes, the negotiation was taught as if the players were perfectly rational and one should keep emotions out of the equation.
That’s silly, and Never Split the Difference makes that very clear.

Many Examples
I appreciated Never Split the Difference where there are a lot of dialogues and examples.

never split the difference


I enjoyed Never Split The Difference.

Yet, part of me feels this cannot be the only book on negotiation you need.
Sometimes you will meet negotiating parties that are out to take advantage of you, scare you, or simply don’t play by the fair rules.

And of course, there are times when more aggressive negotiation styles win:

When Power Negotiating Works

There are many situations in which you don’t need to make the other feel powerful and in which you’re better off crashing the opponent -also read Secrets of Power Negotiating.
The author says that two pit bulls will only make a bloodbath where everyone loses. True.
But you don’t necessarily need to give power to a chihuahua or to a pit bull to which you got a gun pointed.

Attention: I’m not saying you need to crush your opponent. I do am saying though that there countless situations where some aholes will take advantage of a weak opponent to bully him.
And many situations where you are better served by making a show of power instead of one of deference.

Basically: don’t overgeneralize that one method is “superior”. And train yourself to at least have the guts to be in charge and push back.

Overall Review

Never Split the Difference is a great book on negotiation that takes (good) psychology into account.
I wish it were written and organized a bit more clearly, but it’s a must-read anyway for those who want to learn negotiation.

Check out the best books on the negotiation or get the book on Amazon

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