Never Split the Difference – 6 Quintessential Negotiation Tactics

Never Split the Difference – 6 Quintessential Negotiation Tactics


If my time in this world thus far has shown me anything, it is this:


Despite our incurable desire to properly instigate successful arrangements with others, and eventually, satisfy latent needs, most of the time we fail miserably.


The reason isn’t anything extremely sophisticated.


It is our inability to accept and understand that we are emotional, irrational and impulsive primates that seldom rely on logic and reason when it comes to decision-making.


Whether it is a sales negotiation, a business meeting, a family or relationship problem, we somehow presume that we can persuade someone by employing reasonable, moral and “fair” arguments.


Unfortunately, that’s not the case.


A quick look at a sample list of cognitive biases we all suffer from gives us a small taste of how nonsensical human nature is.


Daniel Kahneman in his monumental book “Thinking fast and slow” suggests that our brain operates in two Systems. “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.


Evidently, System 1 dominates System 2 most of the time and properly grasping that idea is of major importance when communicating and negotiating with others.


That’s exactly what Criss Voss did during his tenure as an FBI agent and that’s what he clearly managed to communicate in his recent book “Never Split the Difference.”


That book had a huge impact on my understanding of negotiation and led to a substantial re-engineering of my approach when it comes to negotiation techniques.


Below I present the main negotiation techniques explained in the book. Most are unconventional. That’s why I endorse them.


Never Split The Difference




“Good negotiators, going in, know they have to be ready for possible surprises; great negotiators aim to use their skills to reveal the surprises they are certain to exist.” –Chris Voss


The quintessential interaction is usually established when two people are in sync. When tonality, cadence, language, and moves merge in a unified ensemble that radiates harmony and congruence.


In that state, defenses are down, people feel less threatened, they open up and they are rarely aware of what information they give away.


For every negotiator, this is the ultimate state to reach. Ideally, it sounds nice. Realistically it is almost impossible since in most negotiations we experience a juxtaposition of two opposing views.


Master negotiators, being excessively realistic, understand this disparity and try to bridge it by employing the mirroring technique.


Mirroring, also called isopraxism, in essence, is imitation. While mirroring is usually associated with imitation of nonverbal reactions, in that case, mirroring focuses solely on language.


A “mirror” essentially repeats the last three words of an opposing statement in an attempt to showcase that he pays attention, shows empathy and tries to understand their view. That small technique is used as a great alternative to a counter argument or a simple yes/no response.


Example from work:


Boss: I want you to have this assignment ready within three days.


You: I am sorry, three days?


Boss: Yes it is about an important client and we need to proceed quickly.


You: I am sorry, so you are saying that the client requested the assignment within three days?


Boss: Actually, I will check with them and get back to you.


Side note: This is just the first stage of the negotiation and you can keep mirroring in order to help the other party realize that maybe his demand is unreasonable. Voss also suggests that the mirroring technique works wonders when you use a slow and friendly voice and start your sentences with “I am sorry.”




“The relationship between an emotionally intelligent negotiator and their counterpart is essentially therapeutic.” –Chris Voss


Labeling is similar to mirroring but instead of repetition we use intuition in order to identify internal states. Humans are wired for empathy and this intuitive ability can be surprisingly beneficial during a negotiation.


When you sense aggression or hesitation creeping in, that is a great chance for you to build trust.


Aggression and hesitation are signs of discomfort and a subconscious cry from the opposing party for help. An angry or negative remark sub-communicates that the person is secretly asking for help from your side in order to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.


Labeling is the greatest tool in that respect. By labeling the internal struggle of the other party we get a glimpse of what is happening in their world and they automatically lower their defenses as a sign of appreciation.


Example from sales:


Supplier: I can’t negotiate that price.


You: It seems like that I am asking you to lower the price a lot and that you won’t get the profit margin you were expecting.


Supplier: Yes that’s it.


You: I am sorry, but this is not the case. I would feel the same in your position, but then I would look at the bigger picture. When our sales will keep increasing and we will be asking for more supplies in the future your profit margin will skyrocket. I wouldn’t want to miss that deal.  


Side note: When you label, try and avoid the use of “I.” Statements like “it seems like,” “it sounds like,” “it looks like,” convey that you are more interested in them than yourself.


Start with NO


While in most influence and persuasion books you will find that the prevailing piece of advice is to get the other person to say yes (yes ladder), Voss suggests the opposite.


Giving your “adversary” permission to say “no” is like giving them the right to veto. Allowing them to oppose you creates the “illusion” that they can voice their rights and the negotiating environment becomes automatically more constructive.


As Voss mentions:


“It comes down to the deep and universal human need for autonomy. People need to feel in control. When you preserve a person’s autonomy clearly giving them permission to say “no” to your ideas, the emotions calm, the effectiveness of the decisions go up, and the other party can really look at your proposal.”


Ultimately you want to establish a relationship that is based on respect. When the other party respects you they can negotiate with you on equal terms.


“No” is a tool that helps immensely in that respect. Trying to get counterfeit yeses by being nice and posing irrelevant questions is quite risky because people have a great radar for ingenuity. Ingenuity shatters respect and raises more layers of defense.


Also, a “no” can be provoked in order to play on the other person’s ego and fear of loss. Something along the lines of “it seems like you don’t want to make money,” “it seems like you don’t want this relationship to work,” “it seems like you want this project to fail,” will do the work.


Example from people who don’t respond to emails:


“Have you given up on this project?”


With that simple line, you provoke a no response and initiate a justification. After they reply you can go on with more negotiation techniques.


Side note: Handling a “no” is entirely your responsibility. We are not used to “nos” because we immediately associate them with rejection. Reframe that to a “no” is a sign for collaboration. Think that every “no” gets me closer to a “yes.”


Trigger a “that’s right” response


A “that’s right” response highlights your ability to trigger an intense feeling of validation within the other person.


In Voss’s words:


“When your adversaries say “that’s right” they feel they have assessed what you have said and pronounced it as correct of their own free will. They embrace it.”


“That’s right” is the natural response you will get when you label correctly. When you manage to accurately describe the feelings and situation experienced by the other party, you help them feel so validated that they can’t help but acknowledge that. They think, “He get’s me.” They think, “He understands me.” They think, “I can trust him.”


Bend their reality


“Once you understand that subterranean world of unspoken needs and thoughts, you’ll discover a universe of variables that can be leveraged to change your counterpart’s needs and expectations” – Chris Voss


Reality bending is a very subtle art that requires an extraordinary ability:


To stop thinking that the other person thinks like you.


Perception, biases, and ego when mingled together construct this unbendable force called self. Your self, my self, their self. All different individuals experiencing unbendable realities in variably deterministic worlds.


The funny thing when it comes to the interplay of those realities is that from our perspective, influence works with logical arguments, e.g. “don’t be stressed,” “don’t do that,” “give me that” etc., whereas from the other person’s perspective they can be influenced mainly emotionally: “you are making me sad when you are stressed (guilt),” “If you do that you might hurt yourself (fear),” “if you give me that I will give you a kiss (hope).”


Interesting fact: According to a study conducted by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, people who had damaged a part of their limbic system where emotions are created, couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should do but they couldn’t take action.


When it comes to bending someone’s reality, the key tools one can use are emotional drivers. Those are revealed when people disclose their problems, pains, and unmet objectives. When you get what people really want to satisfy, you can sell a vision of their problem that leaves your proposal as the ideal solution.


Below are some very effective emotional drivers:


  1. Loss aversion: People will always be triggered more by the fear of loss than by the vision of success.
  2. Let the other person go first: When you do that you get the chance to analyze their perspective and plan your strategy. Also, do that when negotiating a price.
  3. Establish a range: When you want to get your point across instead of being specific with your demands, establish a range. E.g. in salary negotiations don’t say I want 110k, say in places like X company people in this job get 130-170k.
  4. Use odd numbers: 37,000$ is rounded. 37,327$ is odd and feels like it got picked after serious calculation.
  5. Surprise with gifts: This is related to reciprocity because subconsciously we feel obliged to give back to people who gave us something.

Use calibrated, open-ended questions


The most powerful calibrated, open-ended questions are:


“How am I supposed to do that?” when you are on the defense and “What is your biggest challenge” when you are on the offense.


The impact of a calibrated, open-ended question lies in the fact that it is challenging. It appeals to a very egotistical need to show that the other person needs to employ intelligence to overcome a problem.


In both questions, the underlying dynamic is that you are the innocent member of the discussion and the other party needs to prove its worth to you.


When you get people to prove their worth to you, you kill two birds with one stone.


  1. You make them look appreciated and intelligent.
  2. You lower their defenses and open up their world to more possibilities and opportunities because they believe they are worth it.


In Closing


The real deal is how to actually combine the above-suggested practices in a method.


I call it “The Voss Method” and here are its steps:


Step 1: Enter a negotiation zone emotionally prepared. Disengage yourself from what your ego is dictating you to feel and view yourself as a therapist. Think that if you trigger certain emotions in the other party, you will have your needs met. Your main goal is to evoke: safety, trust, validation, and rapport.


Step 2: Let the other party go first in order to get a rough blueprint of their psychology.


Step 3: Provoke a “no” response by asking something the other person finds important to them.


Step 4: Mirror, trigger a “that’s right” response, and label.


Step 5: Ask calibrated questions and repeat step 4 to establish rapport and trust.


Step 6: Bend their reality by offering your proposal and using emotional drivers to establish your proposal as their only viable option.


Study those steps carefully, question them, enhance them with your own personal ideas, but always have this in mind:


Take negotiation seriously. For, whether you like it or not, life is negotiation.


A great way to entrench “The Voss method” in your day-to-day life is via the “30 challenges – 30 days – zero excuses” project. Many challenges suggested are from the social-skills plane and allow room for negotiation techniques to be utilized. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.


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Adrian Iliopoulos

I am the founder and main contributor at "The Quintessential Mind" - A unique personal blog that offers a holistic approach to self-development. I am striving to create high-quality content by investing in a reality-based form of self-help, informed by a deep understanding of psychology, philosophy and my own personal experiences and social adventures.
Adrian Iliopoulos