Never Split the Difference Book Summary

Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss explains in his book Never Split the Difference that negotiations are won by emotion instead of logic. Traditional negotiation techniques rely on rational arguments, removing the person from the problem. But that idea is against human nature. We are emotional creatures. Understanding that we are not precisely calculating our best interests is essential for negotiation.

Popular movies have shaped our understanding that a good negotiator is antagonistic with his adversary. But Chris Voss explains that good negotiation sounds like a therapist’s conversation with a client, at least at first. You must understand the feelings, position, and needs of your counterpart.

That’s Right

When you’ve summarized what the other person feels, they will tell you, “that’s right.” It shows that you see things from their perspective. This is the opposite of “you’re right.” When someone says that they don’t feel heard. You’ve beaten them into submission, and you will not get what you want. One of the best ways to show understanding is to repeat back what the other person said. When you get a that’s right, you can be sure that they feel heard. This book offers practical ideas on how to get there. With the use of effective pauses, mirroring, labeling, and paraphrasing, you can let the other side know that they’ve been heard.

Active Listening

Passive listening is when you hear only what you want. But when you ignore your own commentary and instead focus only on what the other person says, you practice active listening. The author explains two efficient ways to implement active listening – mirroring and labeling. Mirroring is repeating the speech patterns of the other person. It is as simple as repeating the last three words someone uses to end their sentence. Labeling is focusing on the emotions of others by acknowledging their emotional state. Labels usually start with “It seems like…”, or “It sounds like…” That labeling defuses negative emotions. It improves feelings of understanding.

Research shows that the best way to deal with negativity is to observe it, without reaction and judgment. Then consciously label each negative feeling and replace it with positive, compassionate, and solution-based thoughts.

Tactical Empathy

Empathy understands the other person’s perspective. It does not agree with it. Using this insight makes people feel less alone. You defuse their anxiety.

Accusation Audits

By identifying each bad thing the person could say about you, it defuses the situation. For example, you may say, “I understand if you think I’m withholding information, lying, or trying to confuse you.” By acknowledging those accusations, they will want to reassure you that they don’t think that way. You’ll be in a stronger position to overcome any objection if you are the one who talks about it first. You can then use those accusations to identify their emotions by saying, “it seems like that… struck a chord with you,” “it seems like that… triggered a thought,” or “it seems like that made you feel… uncomfortable?”


We are more motivated by fear of loss than the hope of gain. You can reframe the solution as one that prevents damage from the other person.

Open-ended, calibrated questions

Instead of leading questions that can be answered with a yes or no, ask open questions. Those questions provoke longer answers that reveal more information. Avoid using words like “can,” “is,” “are,” “do,” or “does.” Instead, it’s best to start questions with words like “What,” “How,” and sometimes “Why.” Questions like “How am I supposed to do that?” or “What are we trying to accomplish here?” will introduce ideas without being aggressive. This allows you to say no without sounding like it. Avoid becoming emotional. The person will buy into the idea because they are solving the problem for you. Other good questions include, “How can we solve this problem?” or “What about this is important to you?” These questions allow you to disagree without being disagreeable.

“Yes,” is nothing without “how.” The trick to “How” questions is that correctly used, they are gentle and graceful ways to say “No” and guide your counterpart to develop a better solution. Get the other person to define success for you. Ask them, “How will we know we’re on track?” and “How will we address things if we find we’re off track?” When that person answers, summarize with mirrors and labels until you get a “That’s right” in response.

Getting to No

Saying yes makes people defensive. Encountering a series of leading “yes” questions from a stranger feels like a trap. Imagine you’ve answered a call from a telemarketer who says, “would you like to save money?” The answer is yes, but it feels like they are leading you somewhere that you don’t want to go. It is a false yes. “No,” feels safer. It allows for the conversation to be on the terms of your counterpart. Your counterpart needs to feel in control. You get there with a no. If you hear no, ask what about this deal that doesn’t work for you? What do you need to make it work? It seems like there is something that bothers you? Start a conversation by triggering a no. Is now a bad time to talk? You can also intentionally mislabel an emotion. Ask a ridiculous question that can only be answered with a no.


Inoculate the other person’s perception of unfairness by addressing it upfront. Tell them that you intend always to treat them fairly, and if at any time they feel that you are not treating them fairly, we will stop and discuss it immediately.

When the other side says they just want what is fair, respond with “Ok. I apologize. Let’s stop everything and go back to where I started treating you unfairly, and we will fix it.” When the other side uses “We’ve given you a fair offer,” respond with “Fair? It seems like you’re ready to provide the evidence that supports that.”

Voice Tone

 Our voice is a powerful tool that dramatically impacts our communication. Words matter, but tone matters more because it is felt. There are three leading voices to use:

Playful and positive. This is easygoing, relaxed, and having a smile on your face. This is the voice you should use most of the time.

Late-night radio host. This is talking slowly, calmly, and clearly. You show that you’re in control of the situation. This is used by having a slight downward inflection at the end of your sentence.

Assertive. This voice should be used rarely because it invites resistance.


In negotiation, leverage is your ability to give the other person something or take it away. There are three types of advantages discussed in the book.

Positive Leverage. You give the other person something that they want.

Negative Leverage. This is your ability to take away something from them. To use this, find what is essential to your counterpart.

Normative Leverage. This is influence through personal beliefs like religion, identity, or another life philosophy. Ask what your counterpart believes in and listen openly. Look at and mirror attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and modes of dress.

Power of Hopes and Dreams

Visualize what counterpart wants out of life, so use those aspirations to get them to follow you. Everyone wants to believe that we are capable of the extraordinary. So display a passion for your counterpart’s desire and convey a purposeful plan on how to get there. That changes your counterpart’s perception of what is possible to change. We are all hungry for a map. Be courageous enough to draw it and follow.

They are not crazy

People acting crazy are often not. Instead, the person is ill-informed, constrained, or has other hidden interests.

Black Swans

These are unexpected revelations that happen in negotiations. They are the unknown unknowns of negotiations. It’s information that we don’t have, and we don’t even know that we lack it. Always ask yourself, why are they communicating what they are communicating?

How do you find the black swan? By asking questions and the use of mirrors and labels described above. Use silence. When they say “that’s best I can do,” you respond with “The best you can do.” Use an upward inflection at the end of the sentence. There should be genuine curiosity on your part. Don’t be afraid of silence. Let the other person fill the void.

Remember that every negotiation is new. Don’t let old patterns blind you.


Deadlines make people do impulsive things. Most people are driven by fear or pain avoidance. Giving someone a period makes them act irrationally. They make us unsettled for no good reason. Resist the urge to rush as your timeline approaches. Make time your ally. Take advantage of the rush in others.

Share your own deadlines. How do you know when the other person’s deadlines are real? When your counterpart increases the specificity of threats, it shows you are getting closer to real consequences at a specified time.  

Bend Their Reality 

In a negotiation, you can bend your counterpart’s reality to conform to what you’re willing to give them. No deal is better than a bad deal. By understanding what is driving your opponent, you can bend their reality. There are six steps to get there.

1. Anchor their emotions: Start with an accusation audit acknowledging all their fears. Anchor them in preparation for a loss.

2. Let the counterpart suggest a price first, especially if neither party knows actual market value. Consider alternatives if the other party is a shark or a rookie.

3. Establish a bolstering range: Recall a similar deal. Range high so people will naturally want to satisfy the low end of my spectrum.

4. Pivot to non-monetary terms: Give things that are not important. Get something that is. Suggest ideas to stimulate brainstorming.

5. Use odd numbers: Don’t use round numbers.

6. Surprise with a gift: Generate reciprocity by giving unrelated surprise gifts.

Splitting the difference leads to terrible outcomes. Creative solutions almost always carry some degree of risk, annoyance, confusion, and conflict. And since most people in negotiation are driven by fear and the desire to avoid pain, they compromise. Use these instincts to bend the reality of your counterpart.

Create a Negotiation Cheat Sheet

The Goal: a specific scenario that represents the best case 

Set optimistic but reasonable Goal & define it clearly 

Write it down! 

Discuss my Goal with a colleague (commitment & consistency) 

Carry the written Goal into the negotiation 

Summary: Couple of sentences about the known facts that have led up to the talks. 

Aim for That’s Right in response 

Labels / Accusation Audit: 3-5 labels to perform an accusation audit 

· It seems like ___ is valuable to you.

· It seems like you don’t like ____.

· It seems like you value ____.

· It seems like ____ makes it more accessible.

· It seems like you’re reluctant to ___.

Calibrated questions: 3-5 to reveal value & overcome potential deal killers 

For my counterpart: 

· What are we trying to accomplish?

· How is that worthwhile?

· What’s the core issue here?

· How does that affect things?

· How does this fit into what the objective is?

To identify behind-the-table deal killers 

· How does this affect the rest of your team?

· How on board are the people not on this call?

· What do your colleagues see as their main challenges in this area?

To identify and diffuse deal-killing issues 

· What are we up against here?

· What is the biggest challenge you face?

· How does making a deal with us affect things?

· What happens if you do nothing?

· What does doing nothing cost you?

· How does making this deal resonate with what your company prides itself on?

Follow up with labels to their answers to the calibrated questions: 

· It seems _____ is important.

· It seems you feel like my company is in a unique position to ____.

· It seems you are worried that ______.

Non-cash offers: list of non-cash items possessed by my counterpart that would be valuable 

· What could they give me that would make me do this for free?

Hammer Time 

Most of us are afraid of conflict and to push for what we want. Through this book, Voss hopes to help us overcome that fear and uncover value through negotiations. Never Split the Difference provides practical advice about negotiating with empathy. Embracing conflict will make you better personally and professionally. Chris Voss shows that the person sitting opposite you may appear to be your adversary, they’re your partner. It’s not the other person that causes our fear. It is the conflict itself.

Five Hammers Hamilton Lindley

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