Book Review: Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

I’m not the biggest reader of non-fiction or business novels. I tend to prefer fiction because of the stories. Just like you might watch a movie for entertainment on a Saturday to get away from the world for a while, I read over my weekends (and commute) because it’s an enjoyable, and productive feeling way to avoid doing other work.

That said, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It reads like a fiction novel. Beyond the suspense and the action implicate in hostage negotiations, the storytelling is compelling at every turn. Even when Voss describes one of his MBA students going to a real estate broker to negotiate a deal, the deal making is still suspenseful. Since Voss has taken the last few chapters to describe the methodology behind his MBA student’s plan of attack, the chapter plays out like a scene from Ocean’s 11. You know that the main character’s pulled off a heist, and you know how they did it, but it’s still just as compelling to watch it unfold because of the mastery involved.

Unlike some books in the genre of business novels, for the reader, being previously exposed to the concepts covered in the book doesn’t spoil the reading experience. Whereas other books would cover base level concepts, offer a few examples, and wrap up without doing anything significant, Voss’s book dives deeper. He layers concepts and then evaluates how they react to the real world. He doesn’t present his method as a perfect model, but rather a framework to guide negotiations, pointing out in that same chapter with the MBA student and the broker that his student jumped the gun by going into haggling too early, and still got the intended outcome.

The book covered a few concepts really well. Specifically framing and mirroring play a huge role in Voss’s negotiating approach. Using mirroring as a method to get your counterpart comfortable and talking is used in examples throughout the book and well evaluated as a technique. Of course as a salesperson I’m biased when it comes to information gathering techniques, but I think the book presents this one and its potential usefulness very well.

Another win for the experienced negotiation readers is that Voss spends barely a paragraph discussing BATNA, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Been there, done that. Rather, Voss focuses on extracting value and finding BATNA’s sexier cousin, simply, the best agreement for you.

One concept in the book did rub me the wrong way--again perhaps it’s because I’m a salesperson. I didn’t like Voss’s concept of “extracting a no.” He states that in a conversation one can give their counterpart the feeling of control by allowing them to say no, leading to a more constructive conversation. While there are merits to his reasoning that a conversation will be more productive if your counterpart feels in control, the method isn’t readily applicable to most conversations. Because Voss fixates on the word “no” itself, rather than simply the higher concept of allowing your counterpart to feel control, a potentially very valid point is lost.

Overall, the book is excellent, though I would have added one thing to improve the overall reading experience. There wasn’t a point where one of the given examples had negotiators using all of the methods discussed on both sides of the table. This may be the fiction reader in me wanting a big climax at the end of a novel, but also it would have served to exemplify the limits and strengths of all of the methods together. Perhaps Voss simply didn’t have an example to use, but in some cases a little embellishment can go a long way, just like setting an extreme anchor as your opening offer.

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