Negotiating Like Some Else’s Life Depended On It
4 Nov 2022

There’s this whole subgenre that I like to call ex-books. They can be found in the business category and they were all written by ex somethings: ex Navy Seals, ex marines, ex CIA agents, ex FBI guys, ex SAS operators, ex somethings. These books bring the front line leadership principles or skills of your favourite television shows to the boardroom, allegedly. They also provide long-suffering Business & Entrepreneurship shelf readers something a bit more juicy and entertaining to read.

Generally, these books are like all self help books… essentially a 250-page iteration of the same platitude, cleverly angled to give the whole feel that you’re about to read something novel. Once you’ve started reading a few of these, they become as meat-and-tatoes as any subgenre you get a lot of exposure to. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that they are not useful. You pick up one trick, or two, or a new way to look at something, or a memorable anecdote, or a new framework, or a little aphorism you can reappropriate – and that makes the book worth a read. Every now and then, one of these books stand out.

Never Split The Difference falls firmly into the ex-books camp. It was written by an ex FBI Hostage Negotiator and is pitched as such. This is a business book for someone who’d really rather read a thriller. Can’t say I blame them – once you’ve heard essentially the same values and principles framed in 74 different ways – you might really rather want to read something else. Anything else. And the ex-books style goes beyond presentation… there are stories in the book. Tales from the field. And as far as thrillers go, it’s relatively well presented. You get some Patterson vibes. Maybe a hint of Clancy.

But the pitch and packaging of the book almost lets you miss the substance – and – unlike many ex-books – this one is action-packed with it.

The title is rather interesting: Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Imagine you are an FBI negotiator. A bad guy with issues have taken 10 people hostage. In every conventional model for negotiations, it’s all about learning to split the difference and to compromise. That would mean the hostage taker releases five of the hostages and kills the other five. This is a book written for negotiations in which you really can’t afford to do that. You have to get everything you want, you can’t compromise, the stakes are very high, there’s a lot of pressure, time is running out, you have a long list of required outcomes and the other guy is criminal, fanatic or crazy and has a gun.

I enjoyed the ex-books aspects of the book. Just because you know the tricks do not mean you can’t enjoy them. But the actual knowledge, the model for negotiating, the breakdown of techniques, the practical advice, the real world application – is truly exceptional. This is a book you need to read three times at least – once for the fun of it, twice to help you start to get it, and the third time to start taking the skills to heart.

There’s some good stuff in here. Stuff that works. In fact, I’d venture to say, if you can only have one book on the topic of negotiation – in business, or life, or in the streets – then you could do a hell of a lot worse than this Voss book.

A lot of the principles in the book are counter-intuitive – a good sign that you are actually in the terrain of picking up new knowledge rather than hearing common misconceptions regurgitated. One of the things that really tripped a switch for me was how Voss is suspicious of the word “Yes”. You’d think, in negotiations – and I’ve read it in books on the subject before – that getting to YES is the whole point of negotiation. Not so fast. People can say yes just to shut you up. That doesn’t mean they will deliver, do what they say they will do, or give you the outcome you want.

Voss developed a whole list of shorthand monikers that can be used to really internalise the correct postures, tone of voice and focus when entering negotiations – be they hostile or not. How to use the word NO to your advantage, how to take hits, overcome setbacks, recover from a slip up, move things forward.

This book delivers – to the point where it’s utility is almost hidden by its ex-book angle. But go with it – the author can’t help that he actually is a former hostage negotiator and that his techniques were actually battle tested in the field and work so well they are now taught at Quantico. Look past all that and understand that you have a field manual for getting what you want from people.

It’s a much more useful book than where it’s been pitched – but had it not been, it would have sold fewer copies and I probably wouldn’t have found it. Like all things in life, and in negotiation – it is best to simply accept truth and reality as they are and work with what you’ve got. Never Split The Difference gives you plenty – the only risk is that you read it too fast and think its less powerful than it actually is.

For me personally – the stakes are higher if I negotiate on behalf of someone else. I consider personal disappointment the baseline – that way, any surprises are pleasant. But if other people count on you to deliver, failure lets them down. And that stings. So I recommend Chris Voss’ Never Split The Difference if you have to learn how to negotiate as if other people’s lives depended on it. Get it, read it, re-read it, learn to apply it, and use it.