Review: Chris Voss’s “Never Split the Difference”

by Miles Raymer


Chris Voss spent decades as a top hostage negotiator for the FBI––an experience that granted him a unique set of skills and perspectives. In Never Split the Difference, Voss and co-author Tahl Raz articulate these skills and perspectives, promising to demystify the art of negotiation and leave readers better prepared to negotiate with increased confidence and effectiveness. Since negotiation isn’t a particular interest of mine, I can’t comment on how this book stacks up against other negotiation-focused works, but I can say that I found Voss’s particular approach to be enlightening in some ways and distasteful in others.

Never Split the Difference is a text that has a lot going for it. It’s highly readable, entertaining, and clear in its claims and objectives. Voss’s anecdotes of various hostage crises are riveting and genuinely instructive, and he does a great job of connecting specific examples to the broader lessons and concepts that comprise his theory of negotiation. Voss posits that “Negotiation is the heart of collaboration. It is what makes conflict potentially meaningful and productive for all parties” (21).

At the center of Voss’s teachings is the idea that the best negotiators go the extra mile to understand the specific motivations and needs of their counterparts, thereby creating a human connection and the possibility of a deal that works out well (or well enough) for everyone. There are a handful of essential skills that aid in this process, the most important of which is “tactical empathy”:

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. It’s bringing our attention to both the emotional obstacles and the potential pathways to getting an agreement done. (52, emphasis his)

As a person with a natural empathy deficit, tactical empathy seems like a great tool for “faking” empathy in a situation when I may not truly feel it. Regardless of my internal experiences and judgments, it is always beneficial to listen carefully, attempt to model another’s point of view, and suggest courses of action that serve my own interests as well as those of my counterpart insofar as I perceive them.

Exerting tactical empathy involves much more than simply saying the right words. Voss identifies tone, diction and body language as indispensable tools for building rapport and coming to agreements that are both practical and fair. He demonstrates a keen understanding of cognitive biases and emotional reasoning, which he uses to outline a battery of interpersonal devices that help negotiators ease tensions and make progress without giving too much ground:

Our brains don’t just process and understand actions and words of others but their feelings and intentions too, the social meaning of their behaviors and their emotions. On a mostly unconscious level, we can understand the minds of others not through any kind of thinking but through quite literally grasping what the other is feeling. Think of it as a kind of involuntary neurological telepathy––each of us in every given moment signaling to the world around us whether we are ready to play or fight, laugh or cry. (32)

This kind of thinking won’t be novel for anyone with a cursory understanding of modern psychology, but Voss does his due diligence by highlighting the importance of these unspoken features of social life.

If we play our cards right by establishing an empathetic connection, we can begin to steer a negotiation in the direction we desire. My favorite articulation of this process is Voss’s description of negotiators as “decision architects” who “dynamically and adaptively design the verbal and nonverbal elements of the negotiation to gain both consent and execution” (163, emphasis his). I especially appreciate his attention in Chapter Eight to the importance not just of getting a deal done, but of ensuring that the negotiation process includes a concrete discussion of how the terms of a deal will be executed. In my own limited experience, a failure and/or inability to execute can scuttle even a mutually-beneficial business deal struck in good faith by well-intentioned negotiators.

The final key feature of Voss’s strategy is the importance of seeking out “Black Swans, those hidden and unexpected pieces of information––those unknown unknowns––whose unearthing has game-changing effects” (214, emphasis his). A good negotiator always assumes there are germane details that one or both parties may not be aware of, and therefore always remains open to the possibility that the rules of the game can change. Staying calm and confident, even in the face of Black Swan revelations that negatively affect one’s position, is crucial:

Every case is new. We must let what we know––our known knowns––guide us but not blind us to what we do not know; we must remain flexible and adaptable to any situation; we must always retain a beginner’s mind; and we must never overvalue our experience or undervalue the informational and emotional realities served up moment by moment in whatever situation we face. (218, emphasis his)

This strikes me as a great lesson that we can fruitfully apply to all human undertakings, and the same can be said for a number of Voss’s other insights. However, in this strength we also find the book’s primary weakness: Voss’s failure to acknowledge that there are some contexts in which negotiation strategies might be useless or even detrimental. This failure results in some serious overreach, with Voss claiming a much larger scope of application than is warranted. He repeatedly makes it clear that his tricks of the trade can and should be broadly utilized:

Life is a negotiation…Effective negotiation is applied people smarts, a psychological edge in every domain of life: how to size someone up, how to influence their sizing up of you, and how to use that knowledge to get what you want. (17-8)

These bold assertions––that “life is a negotiation” and that negotiation strategies can confer “a psychological edge in every domain of life”­­––don’t withstand scrutiny. They sound like the gritty and hard-won observations of an effectual realist, but what they really reveal is the extent to which Voss’s professional outlook seems to limit his understanding of social life. There are numerous passages in Never Split the Difference that, while making sense within the context of negotiation theory, come off as repellent in other social contexts. Here are some examples:

“No” is the start of a 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. (78, emphasis his)

Whether we like it or not, a universal rule of human nature, across all cultures, is that when somebody gives you something, they expect something in return. And they won’t give anything else until you pay them back. (148)

The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control…[You] make your counterpart feel like they’re in charge, but it’s really you who are framing the conversation. Your counterpart will have no idea how constrained they are. (155)

Don’t treat others the way you want to be treated; treat them the way they need to be treated. (198)

Now, since I am accusing Voss of overreach, I want to be very careful to avoid overreach in my own critiques. Let me be clear: All of the passages above seem true and sensible to me, within the limited context of formal negotiation. My argument isn’t that Voss is wrong about these claims, but rather that his framing of “life as a negotiation” opens a pathway for his advice to be misused or abused in social situations that are not negotiation-driven. In fact, Voss appears to ignore the existence of such situations altogether, instead implying that all of sociality is a tit-for-tat exchange between people who are exclusively concerned with fulfilling their personal goals and desires.

Examining the first of the four passages above, it is not hard to believe those words running through the heads of serial harassers and perpetrators of sexual assault. We definitely don’t want to encourage people engaging in sexual encounters to think that the word “No” is the start of a negotiation. In the second passage, Voss points out that rules of reciprocity exist in all human cultures, but fails to acknowledge that such rules vary widely from culture to culture and that our concepts of what it means to “give” and “get” are flexible. In the third passage, one can simultaneously see the efficacy of wielding persuasive power during a negotiation and imagine the horror of being manipulated by a friend or family member who decides to inject their negotiating skills into a social encounter where it doesn’t belong. Finally, the fourth passage reveals a distressing hubris: The assumption that any of us has the intelligence or authority to decide how another person “needs” to be treated.

None of this would be a problem if Voss made the effort to distinguish the social contexts in which the negotiation mindset is appropriate from ones in which it’s not, but this never occurs. This left me feeling that, despite my impression that Voss is a sincere and decent fellow, he lacks an underlying ethical framework that unleashes negotiation tactics when they are helpful and represses them when they may cause harm.

Another example of this shortcoming is Voss’s churlish assessment of compromise:

Compromise––“splitting the difference”––can lead to terrible outcomes…The real problem with compromise is that it has come to be known as this great concept, in relationships and politics and everything else. Compromise, we are told quite simply, is a sacred moral good…I’m here to call bullshit on compromise right now. We don’t compromise because it’s right; we compromise because it’s easy and because it saves face. We compromise in order to say that at least we got half the pie. (115-6)

I’m not sure I’d argue that compromise is a “sacred moral good,” but I’m damned sure it’s at least a moral good of some kind. Again, Voss’s failure to complicate his arguments with the necessary nuance gets him into trouble. Contemporary American culture and politics are suffering mightily because too many people buy this idea that compromise is all about posturing and ceding ground––a sign of foundational weakness and lack of conviction. But that’s not what compromise is at all.

Compromise is what happens when we accept that the world is a complex place full of folks who don’t necessarily see things the same way we do or have the same agenda, and we all have to live with each other. It is a critical tool (not the only tool) for ensuring that coexistence with others can be brokered peacefully, instead of through aggression and violence. So it’s fine for Voss to say there are particular situations in which compromise won’t get us what we want or what we need, but that reality shouldn’t also undermine the validity of compromise as an idea or sociopolitical practice. Sometimes splitting the difference is just fine, and sometimes it’s a moral imperative.

Even though I’m skeptical of some of Voss’s broader claims about the applicability of his work, there’s no doubt that he’s a smart, capable person who wrote this book with laudable intentions. On the whole, Voss comes off as a humanist who views negotiation as a necessary form of conflict that, when enacted properly, can solve sticky problems and create prosperity for all:

It’s not the guy across the table who scares us: it’s conflict itself…Our emphasis throughout the book is that the adversary is the situation and that the person that you appear to be in conflict with is actually your partner…One can only be an exceptional negotiator, and a great person, by both listening and speaking clearly and empathetically; by treating counterparts––and oneself––with dignity and respect; and most of all by being honest about what one wants and what one can––and cannot––do. (242-3)

Rating: 6/10