Last week, I had finished listening to an audiobook, “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on it” by Chris Voss. I found many aspects of the content within interesting and insightful. I knew some of the psychological behaviours that Chris utilised to his advantage from his book, such as “loss aversion” and the “rule of reciprocity”, but for the former, I had never thought of as something that can be directly usable in a negotiation.

Other psychological ‘tricks’, such as changing the tone of voice, mirroring the phrases your counterpart has said, pausing, minimal encouragers1, summarizing2 what was said, and labelling3 the issues, were things I was aware of from other literature from “Neuro-linguistic Programming”, although the use of summarization and labelling as practiced within the book were not things that I was familiar with.

The point about labelling appears to have a manifold action: one, it diffuses the fear of any negative counterpoints by bringing it in the forefront, and two, it can be used for your counterpart to say ‘no’ to, which allows them to assert authority, or to leave them feeling ‘being in control’. On the other hand, denying the counterpoints lend them credence, allowing the fear to simmer in the mind. Often, labelling the worst things the other party can say about you heads off the negative dynamics, and also it has a tendency to be exaggerated when said, thus allows the counterparty to claim the opposite is true.

There is some genius in this. Prior to reading the book, I had thought of negotiation as a covertly aggressive act between parties in which victory is attained only when one has cowered the other into submission. To think of negotiation as a language of conversation and rapport, to get people to work together, and as a means of information discovery, is a fresh idea to me, and one that is much easier to buy in. Chris also suggests that persuasion is not about how smart, smooth, or forceful one is, seemed a little counterintuitive; I had held for a fact that if someone is smooth, he/she will be able to easily convince another to his/her point of view. Maybe what I hadn’t taken into account that no matter how smart or smooth a person might be, it can be deemed as an unacceptable proposition if it does not fit into the other person’s worldview.

When the dynamic of fear and domination is removed from negotiations, then it is possible to generate feelings of well-being, safety and trust, from which is probably when a cooperative problem-solving by both parties can proceed. Also, only after positive regard for each other is attained, does the door for changing thoughts and behaviour happen. When a person feels understood and is positively affirmed in that understanding, the more it is possible for constructive behaviour to take hold.

Conversely, when people feel that they are not in control, they adopt what is called a hostage mentality, where during moments of conflict, they will become extremely defensive or lash out due to their powerlessness, or to feign acquiescence with no intention of following through with their agreement.

The book also reminded me on how we are NOT rational actors, and that negotiation is not a mechanical calculus of pluses and minuses. Rule based impositions, such as deadlines are also often less immovable as they seem. In actuality, deadlines could be used as a mechanic to entice people to rush in negotiations, and do things that are normally against their best interests. It’s one of those things that I do have to remind myself in the future to distinguish whether a deadline given is actually fact, or fiction.

Finally, when it comes to negotiations, people want to feel like they have been heard. Trying to go too fast would not be ideal in a negotiation. This is one thing that I should take to heart.

‘Yes’ and ‘No’

It is amazing how much subtext there are within the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. They are words so constantly used that I wasn’t even aware of their effects.

How to refuse without saying ‘no’

In order to stall or refuse without outright saying ‘no’, one can either use mirroring as a question, or rely on what Chris calls a ‘calibrated question’.

A calibrated question often comes in the form of ‘how’ or ‘what’, and a ‘why’ question is almost always an accusation, and puts people on the defensive. It was amazing how little thought I have given to the usages of these words, and while I had vague clues reading from elsewhere that such questions had certain effects, it hadn’t been presented with immediate clarity.

By using a ‘how’ question as a form of saying ‘no’, it not just avoids a direct confrontation, but additionally frames it as a problem that other person has to solve for you in order to move forward. This is an ultimate form of taichi4.

For a concrete example, it is suggested that one can express ‘no’ in other ways 4 times, before the ‘no’ itself:

  • “How am I supposed to do that?” or “How can I do that?”
  • “Your offer is very generous, but I’m sorry that doesn’t work for me”
  • “I’m sorry, I’m afraid that I can’t do that”
  • “I’m sorry, no”
  • “No”

Avoid questions that answers with “yes” or with tiny close-ended pieces of information.

That is because they don’t require thinking, and will trigger the need for reciprocity.

Allow your counterpart to say ‘no’

Allowing the other side to say “No”, makes the speaker feel safe, secure, and in control. Saying “no” allows them to define their space and gains the confidence and comfort to listen to you. “Is now a bad time to talk?” is always better than “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Also, anything that isn’t an outright rejection, means that there is room for negotiation.

“Counterfeit ‘yes’”, “Statement of Fact ‘yes’”, and “Commitment ‘yes’”

A “counterfeit yes”, is a lie to get people off your back. A “statement of fact yes” is an answer to what is generally true, such as answering to “the sky is blue”. A “commitment yes” is what one should strive for when getting an agreement.

The analogue equivalent of a “counterfeit yes” would be the statement “you’re right”. It’s different to “that’s right” as the latter indicated that the person has internalised into his/her own conclusion.

A summary will be useful in confirming or triggering a “that’s right”.

Also, a “yes” is not useful without a “how”. Quiz them on the mechanics of “how” the “yes” can be accomplished. It is also a way in detecting the level of the other party’s conviction. The 2 questions to accomplish that would be

  • “How would we know if we’re on track?”
  • “How would we address things if we are off track?”

Personally, I’ve noted in many situations in which my counterpart would have answered “We’ll come to that when it happens. Don’t worry”. Personally, that isn’t a satisfying answer, and neither does it provide an assurance that the person on the other side had considered things well. Maybe it’s a sign on it’s own that the offer/decision isn’t firm? While the book itself does not have a direct reference to this scenario, I suspect the answer is similar to the “I’ll try” answer, which was said to be a plan to fail.

A combination of calibrated questions, summaries and labels should allow for a re-affirmation 3 times. It’s hard to repeatedly fake a conviction, so it might be worth doing so. Personally, if someone did this to me, I would get pretty pissed off: I don’t like to be asked the same things more than once - it’s as if the person wasn’t paying attention and hadn’t heard me the first time.

On Assumptions

Don’t commit to assumptions; instead, view them as hypotheses and use the negotiation to test them rigorously. Do not assume people think like you - “If you approach a negotiation thinking that the other guy thinks like you, you’re wrong”, Chris says, “that’s not empathy; that’s projection.”

Or, as a saying goes “Don’t assume, it makes an ass out of u and me".

On Compromise

One point that I find novel, yet uncomfortable, was that we don’t compromise because it is right; we compromise because it is easy, and that saves face. In short, we compromise to be safe. Most people in a negotiation are driven by fear and by the desire to avoid pain.

This rings true personally, but on the flip-side, I’m not sure what to think about the ‘winner takes all’ approach either. Chris provides an analogy that splitting the difference is like wearing “one black and one brown shoe” and therefore, do not compromise as meeting halfway often leads to bad deals for both sides.

In a hostage situation, I understand that the only right answer has to be ‘winner takes all’, but given in less or non-hostile negotiation, would that not mean that I’ll be doing the equivalent of “taking all your shoes, leaving you barefoot?”

I am supposing it is a grey area that is for ourselves to decide what is “fair”, and negotiate in a way that leaves what is acceptable, but isn’t a compromise on my side for the other party to agree to.

Finally, in order to get to an uncompromised outcome, the negotiation will always be preceded by some degree of risk, annoyance, confusion and conflict, and we have to embrace that. It’s where the great deals are, and that’s what great negotiators do.

On Fairness

The F-word, “Fair”, is an emotionally loaded term that people exploit, either to put the other side on the defensive and gain concessions. When your counterpart drops the F-bomb, don’t get suckered into a concession.

A good way of using the word “fair”, as Chris uses it, would be to say something early in the negotiation like “I want you to feel like you are being treated fairly at all times. So please stop me at any time if you feel I’m being unfair, and we’ll address it.”

Hold Your Temper

A good negotiation requires good control over one’s own temperament. I think this would be one of the hardest things to do, not especially if we’re either being attacked in a negotiation, or when getting mistreated when the other side is falsely claiming that we’re getting a “fair” deal.

When attacked in a negotiation, pause and avoid angry emotional reactions. Instead:

  • ask your counterpart a calibrated question, or
  • label an inconsistency in which the other party had said to be “fair” but isn’t doing to be fair, or
  • label the accusation itself (“Are you saying that (Accusation)” type questions), or
  • ask them to explain how you’re mistreating them.

I can imagine using all the techniques above, but imagine being able to do that even without showing a hint of anger!


You can bend your counterpart’s reality by anchoring his starting point. Before you make an offer, emotionally anchor them by saying how bad it will be. When you get to numbers, set an extreme anchor to make your “real” offer seem reasonable, or use a range to seem less aggressive. The real value of anything depends on what vantage point you’re looking at it from.

I believe at some points, the book says it isn’t exact science here, and there’s room to adjust based on the situation. The other general point is not to open first, which seems in some ways to contradict the anchoring? If you hadn’t been the first to open, wouldn’t the other party have given you an anchor instead.

Having a range to anchor to, will often lead people to anchor towards the base of the range. So it’s important to make sure that the low range is something that you’re willing to accept.

Sometimes, it’s also useful to pivot into non–monetary items. There might be things that you’ll want that can be given outside of just price alone.

When making a numerical offer, ultimately give an irregular number. It makes your counterpart think as if it has been given due consideration, and/or that the exactness makes them think it might be all you have.

On Leverage and Black Swans

The usage of ‘leverage’ in this book aren’t the 2 common definitions that I’m more familiar with. Rather, ‘leverage’ in this book means “the ability to inflict loss and withhold gain”.

Leverage might come from information that seems innocuous. Either side might be completely oblivious to its importance.

3 Types of Leverage

The 3 types of leverage are:

  • Positive: when you have things that other people want
  • Negative: having the ability to make the counterpart suffer
  • Normative: identifying the inconsistency between a person’s words and action

Black Swans are leverage multipliers.

Our irrational perceptions are our reality, loss and gain are slippery notions, and it often doesn’t matter what leverage actually exists against you. What really matters is the leverage they think you have on them. As an emotional concept, leverage can be manufactured, whether it exists or not.

If they are talking to you, you have leverage. That wasn’t entirely clear to me, but the analogy was “if the kidnapper is talking to you, then you have something they want”. Leverage has lots of inputs, like time, necessity and competition.

Do not use negative leverage. Instead use a label, eg. “it seems like strongly value the fact that you do pay on time”.

Black Swan: if an outcome seems irrational, search for constraints, hidden desires and bad information.

Other Psychological Tricks

  • Look for small pauses that could indicate discomfort and lies.
  • Always be open to the information presented, why are they communicating what they are communicating, right now?
  • 3-38-55 rule: 7% of messages is based on words, 38% comes from the tone of your voice, and 55% percent from the speaker’s body language. But, take the ratio as an analogy, not as literal fact.
  • Having face-time might give more information. look at beginning, ending or when things get out-of-line.
  • Apparently, heavy usage of personal pronouns actually mean that the person isn’t the true decision maker. Not sure if I fully agree with that, but will pay attention to this in future.
  • Don’t just pay attention to the person you are negotiating with; identify the motivations of people behind the table, by asking “how will this deal affect everybody else? or are the people outside this discussion also on board?”
  • Be personable. Literally introduce your name, like “Hi, my name is Chris. What is the Chris discount I can get?”
  • Strategic Umbrage: “I can’t see how this would ever work”.

  1. Things like “um”, “uh-huh”, “yes”, “carry on”, “I hear you” ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. A good summary is to combine a rearticulation the meaning of what is said, with the acknowledgment of the emotions underlying that meaning ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. Labelling typically comes in the form, “it seems like”, “it looks like”, “it sounds like” ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. Taichi: a martial art, in which a person’s force is used against himself. It has a more specific colloquial meaning in Singlish. ↩︎ ↩︎