Notes: "Never Split the Difference" by Chris Voss

Empathy and tools for negotiation and communication

I found the book to be an effective listing of tools to increase perceived and genuine empathy. Additionally I enjoyed how Voss broke down negotiations and communication in a systematic way.

Looking back on my notes, I perceived the book to be useful in the following two respects:

  • As a listing of tools for effective negotiation, conversations, and communication. Although most of the tools described within the book were simply clarifying some vague and fuzzy process I was already doing to a certain extent.
  • A collection of examples involving high-stake situations, with each example demonstrating the tools and techniques discussed as actually having a significant affect on the outcome.

The most general takeaway, for me at least, was in how I could view conversations more systematically. E.g. now I can label and identify the different aspects/emotions when I communicate a little more definitively.

I do want to pause and highlight, the one aspect clarified above all else in the book, the idea of empathy. Voss has a specific name for considering the other persons opinion, and he terms it empathy with a prefix: “Tactical Empathy”. He defines it as "the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.”

Needing empathy is obvious, but the interesting aspect of Voss’s definition is in how its broken into two distinct aspects.

  1. Part one is the observation of the counterparts perspective. Meaning, I need to be receptive and attentive, hearing my counterparts perspective and their opinions.

  2. The second part, is the physical representation and acknowledgement that I am actually listening. Meaning I should be replying back to my counterpart with direct confirmation.

Negotiation is not an act of battle; it's a process of discovery. The goal is to uncover as much information as possible.
-- Voss

Tools Gained

All of the tools provided by Voss are for improvements in how to listen, to ask brief questions, and to enable yet more listening. Heres a quick rundown of the tools and ideas, (bolded in name), which I attained from the book and singled out as being potentially useful for others:

  • A nuanced view of the distinct modes which occur during negotiation; either an information gathering mode or a more behavior influencing mode. (Ala, multi-armed bandit
  • When I should use an accusation audit, and when to lead conversations upfront with them.
  • Labeling of the counterparts emotions and how to signal the acknowledgement of them.
  • Responses to potential accusations of towards me not being empathetic, or understanding of the other side.
  • How Mirroring provides an effective and low effort way to appear even more empathetic and understanding.
  • Calibrated Questions and their structure to provide far more information returned than if not used.
  • The Ackerman model, one of the few negotiation specific tools in how it systematically approaches offers and counteroffers.

The following sections are more or less me going through each of those tools and expanding on them further. If you have heard of them before, you might still find my opinions on them to vary in interesting ways from your own. And if this is all new to you, then keep reading on for novel takeaways!

Ackerman model (offer-counteroffer)

This was one of the few tools which seems to be negotiation specific. But considering I don’t have experience in this area, I can’t tell if it’s actually worthwhile to know. I’m mostly keeping it here as a reassuring reminder of the existence of a check list like approach to negotiation. To be honest, I’m skeptical of the granularity and arbitrarily given ratio’s, therefore I'm not going to dive into the specifics, and instead only outline the steps as I understand them:

  1. Set my own internal target price by thinking of the true value I would give to something. E.g. if it’s a tangible item, taking a Marie Kondo like approach, Does this item spark joy?.
  2. Publicly state an offer below my actual price I am willing to pay, say at a ~35% discount. Or stated differently, at 65% of my target price. So if I'm willing to pay $100, I actually state I'm willing to only pay $65. The high level goal, is to provide an extreme anchor, ideally bringing the other side immediately to the maximum amount of concessions they are willing to make.
  3. Calculate a couple of raises, aka concessions I'm willing to fallback on. Making sure each raise is a successively smaller increment, in the hope of signaling (bluffing) to the other side I'm actually giving up every last thing. E.g. first up to 80%, 90%, then finally 95%. Always keeping emotionally detached to their values (to avoid loss aversion). Reminding myself if I was to concede up to any of those prices it would still be a win.
  4. Use whatever tools necessary to keep the conversation going while still saying No. The goal is to have the other side counter and bring down their estimate, prior to me having to concede even once.
  5. Land on an amount which has enough precision to provide credibility given the other parties assumed information. (tricks are to throw in a non-monetary item, or a non-round number).

Known Unknowns & Unknown Unknowns

Don't commit to assumptions; instead, view them as hypotheses and use the negotiation to test them rigorously.
— Voss

I took away the following thought: I never will have a complete picture prior to the start of any conversation. More generally, my mental model right now, does not yet know many things. Therefore I should actively seek out where I might find novelty. Do not shy away from the unknowns which are too difficult to uncover. For I might be surprised to find I discover what was previously an unknown known to me.

A great negotiator aims to use her skills to reveal the surprises she is certain to find.
— Voss

Labeling and Highlighting Emotions

Labeling as used and defined by Voss is "spotting the counterparts feelings, turning them into words and calmly and respectfully repeating their emotions back to them.”

Ideally I should keep phrases neutral, but not vague, just neutral from their place of origin, but direct with their content.

Voss provides a few lead-ins to help define my labels:

  • "It seems like..."
  • "It sounds like..."
  • "It looks like..."

I think the key thing here is what the examples are lacking. They lack the word "I". Thus, helping me to avoid appearing as a critical interpreter of the other person, and keeping the label as a potential thought, and not as a direct accusation from me.

Voss notes that the last rule should be silence, to allow, “giving the time for the thoughts to pass around in each others head”. Which I personally need to focus on. I often jump on the uncomfortable silence which arrises from complex conversions where we both have to think. Thinking retrospectively I can recall plenty of situations where I rashly broke the silence, ignoring the time and patience required to execute this labeling of the others emotions.

One example in the book that helped me to internalize what labeling actually means, is a case example demonstrating direct calling Washington Redskins season ticket holders, delinquent in their payments. The script the NFL team used was a "stupidly aggressive, impersonal, tone-deaf style of communication that is default for most business." The part related to labeling and empathy, is in how wrong the script was in its usage of "me, me, me" from the NFL team's perspective. “No empathy. No connection. Just give me the money"

Voss describes how the team changed their verbiage from the impersonal, to a more personal script using:

  • Your Washington Redskins"
  • "the home-field advantage created by you...",
  • "we understand our fans have been hit hard and we are here to work with you".
  • "call back with your unique situation

The take away here is appreciating and leveraging how everyone wants to be acknowledged as unique. Which makes sense given how I want to feel special, so I seek signs of it out. However I have seen more signals which are actually opposing any such uniqueness. Therefore I have learned over time most of my abilities are average. Since I’m average, and just like most people, its not just me, but most people also simultaneously want to feel special too.

Emotions are not the obstacles, they are the means.
— Voss

Labeling part two, how to know it works?

If I was to label a specific emotion of my counterpart, I would do it via paraphrasing. In my statement back, I would identify their own goals, dreams, and feelings. I would try to provide a concise mental model related to the information of the conversation. The responses back to me would be the feedback I would use to either tell if it worked or not.

The simplest positive indicator is a reply of:

  • "that's right"

Given a genuine confirmation or some longer variation of that, I would interpret it as a positive indicator the labeling worked. However, this signal is noisy and not always an accurate gauge, therefore its recommended to increase confidence in this signal by introducing redundancy.

  • Voss recommends to get the counterpart to reaffirm their agreement multiple times. With N >= 3
  • Additionally using calibrated questioning to increase the likelihood of counterparts response being a real, truthful signal of agreement, not a faux one.

How to respond to an attack against your empathy?

"We've given you a fair deal"

This is an example when the counterpart shifts focus to my supposed lack of understanding of fairness. The implication being I'm not accurate in my knowledge of the world or their situation. Basically they are saying I'm not being empathetic.

Voss recommends responding with the scientific response, of "It seems like you're ready to provide the evidence that supports that". Using such a line, is ideally going to make the other side expose more information. And at the very least, provides more data to work with than before, and at the very best, provides contradiction of their claim.

Calibrated Questions - Expose Information

One simple technique Voss recommends is of using questions, that can do the following simultaneously:

  • Implicitly ask the party for help.
  • Give the illusion of control over to the answerer.
  • Inspire them to speak at length, revealing important information.

He recommends using a "why" question followed by a statement which doesn't conform to their expectations.

I can imagine an example where I want to pitch my software product to someone using an alternative, competing software product. If I was to follow Voss’s advice, I would try highlighting all the things that are against my position and say something such as: "Why would you ever change to our product, the current one your using is great for what it does!?”

However there was some caveats and things to avoid. Heres what I should NOT do:

  • Avoid the emotional charge when hearing answers which make me angry or don't conform to my prior expectations.
  • Avoid flat out accusations, such as asking "Why…[some variation of it not being my way!]”. If I was to do this, it would force the counterpart to be on the defensive.

Thanks for Reading!

And thanks for sticking with it all the way to the end. Of course, there is plenty more to Never Split the Difference than just these points, but these are the major highlights of the book I thought worth sharing with you.