I’ve discussed negotiating quite a bit (see here, here, here—and in more depth, here) but I’ve yet to come across a book on this topic as helpful as Never Split the Difference by former FBI hostage-negotiator Chris Voss.
As one might suspect, a hostage negotiator doesn’t exactly get the option of splitting the difference. Instead, Voss digs deeper into human psychology, all the while highlighting how these various techniques work with practical anecdotes from both hostage negotiating and business.
Voss notes that classic negotiating books such as Getting to Yes had a lot of great advise in them—particularly with regards to negotiating based on interests instead of positions (which devolves into bartering back and forth over price) and trying to find win-win solutions where possible. But advances in our understanding of psychology (which are best highlighted in the great book Thinking Fast and Slow) and real-world experience doesn’t always follow the textbook theories. Voss then combines the practical and scientific for a tour-de-force book on negotiating.
First off, the most important part of negotiating is to go in with the right frame of mind. As Voss puts it,
“People who view negotiation as a battle of arguments become overwhelmed by the voices in their heads. Negotiation is not an act of battle, it’s a process of discovery. The goal is to uncover as much information as possible. To quiet the voices in your head, make your sole and all-encompassing purpose the other person and what they have to say.”
Instead of a battle, “The language of negotiation is primarily a language of conversation and rapport.” This “language” includes smiling and being positive and friendly. This is important because it puts both of you in a positive frame of mind; you both are “more likely to collaborate and problem solve instead of fight and resist.” In fact, just slowing down can aid the process of rapport building. If you go to fast, you will 1) skip most opportunities to build rapport, and 2) make people feel like they are not being heard, and thus they may get defensive.
After you’ve slowed things down and built rapport, the next mind frame change is: “Don’t commit to assumptions. Instead, view them as hypothesis and use the negotiation to test them rigorously.” The idea here is that instead of trying to barge your way to some conclusion, see the negotiation as a fact-finding mission. This will take much of the pressure off, but it also puts you at the advantage. The person who talks more, loses. The person who listens more, wins. This is because the person who’s talking is giving up information that could be useful in figuring out if a deal makes sense. Maybe, for example, a seller will let loose that they need to sell very quickly, and would thereby consider a lower price—or maybe they have the ability, and thus possibly the willingness, to owner finance. Or perhaps they have another property to sell. If you’re too busy talking, you may miss these valuable insights.
Mirroring is one of the best ways to “get the other person to talk” and steer the conversation the way you want. Voss describes it as such:
“Repeat the last three words, or the critical words, of what someone has just said. We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar. Mirroring is the art of insinuating similarity, which facilitates bonding. Use mirrors to encourage the other side to empathize and bond with you, to keep people talking, to buy your side time to regroup, and encourage your counterparts to reveal their strategy.”
Voss also notes that “mirroring will make you feel awkward as heck when you first try it. That’s the only hard part about it. The technique takes a little practice. Once you get the hang of it, it will become a conversational Swiss Army Knife—valuable in just about every professional and social setting.” As with most things, practice makes perfect.
Here’s an example he provides of a technophobic boss who always wanted everything in hard copies. He was also one of “those” bosses, who always wanted things his way and saw recommendations to do something a better way as recommendations to do something the lazy way. One of Voss’ clients was on the receiving end of one of these requests to copy thousands of documents in what would have been a week worth of work.
“Popping his head into her office, her boss said, ‘Let’s make two copies of all the paperwork.’
“‘I’m sorry, two copies? She mirrored in response… [delivering] the mirror in an inquisitive tone. The intention behind most mirrors should be ‘please help me understand.’ Every time you mirror someone they will reword what they said. They will never say it exactly the same way they said it the first time. Ask someone ‘what did you mean by that?’ and you’re likely to incite irritation or defensiveness. A mirror, however, will get you the clarity you want while signaling respect and concern for what the other person is saying.
“‘Yes,’ her boss responded. ‘One for us, and one for the customer.’
‘I’m sorry. So you are saying that the client is asking for a copy and we need one for internal use?’
“‘Actually, I’ll check with the client. They haven’t asked for anything, but I definitely want a copy. That’s just how I do business.’
“‘Absolutely. Thanks for checking with the customer. Where would you like to store the in-house copy? There’s no more space in the file room here.’
“‘It’s fine, you can store it anywhere,’ he said, slightly perturbed now.
“‘Anywhere?’ When another person’s tone or body language is inconsistent with his words, a good mirror can be particularly useful. In this case, it caused her boss to take a nice long pause. Something he did not often do.
“‘As a matter of fact, you can put them in my office. I’ll get the new assistant to print it for me after the project is done. For now just create two digital backups.’
“A day later, her boss emailed and put simply, ‘The two digital backups will be fine.'”
The interesting thing about this otherwise banal negotiation is that I highly doubt her boss even considered it to be a negotiation.
Mirrors are thus a great way to gain more information and also get the other side to either re-evaluate their request or perhaps even negotiate with themselves. And when someone starts to negotiate with themselves, it’s always going to end ugly.
You’ll also notice that the mirrors are peppered in with questions. Just as with talking and listening, the person who asks the questions is at the advantage over the person who answers them. You can’t give in a negotiation by asking a question, but you can certainly give by answering one.
I will pick up with more lessons from Never Split the Difference next week. But for now, remember to be positive and build rapport. Go into a negotiation as an investigator would, not as an inquisitor would. Then use mirrors and questions to clarify the other side’s position, wants, and needs, and gain as much information as possible. Information is knowledge, and knowledge, after all, is power.
What are your tips for mastering mindset during negotiation? Share them below!