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Updated: Nov 14, 2023

By Dr. Mark Young

Rational Games, Inc.

In almost every seminar I have offered in recent months, at least one participant asks me what I think of Chris Voss and his book and Master Class on “Never Split the Difference”?  Most are impressed with what they read and want to add his insights to those that we are teaching.  Is this new approach to negotiation indeed, in Simon Sinek’s language, a “Worthy Rival” to the old standby of Win-Win?  And what can I learn from someone so much more famous as a negotiation coach than I?

And so I took the occasion of this month’s blog to read the book in its entirety. And there is indeed much to be impressed by here:  NSTD is well-written, as well as gripping in many places (who is not captivated by true stories of hostage negotiation?).  I very much like Chris’ focus on “unconditional acceptance” of the other, on appealing to animal interests, “paraverbal” signals (the “how things are said”), the inherent value of conflict and his intriguing idea of “black swans”, that, once discovered, change all of our calculations.

Nevertheless, allow me to muse on three reservations on his fundamental approach:

First, as an ethical negotiator, I am simply uncomfortable with enjoinments to engage in “forced empathy”, “inflicting losses and withholding gains”, disingenuous questions like “how am I supposed to do that?”, NLP-style mirroring and feints like “strategic umbrage”.  All of this smacks of manipulation and a quick win at the expense of the future relationship.

This may be warranted for police negotiations, as I assume we are rarely that interested in a lasting relationship with the criminal on the other side once the hostage has been freed.  But most negotiations that I know in the business, political or diplomatic world are embedded in relationships, and it is simply shortsighted and not particularly smart to engage in such tactics, even if you feel sure the other side will not figure out what you are up to.

Finally, it seems to me that Chris is engaged in “straw man” argumentation.  No one in the tradition of Fisher and Ury has ever promoted “splitting the difference” as an enlightened way of negotiation.  Indeed, the classic “two sisters find an orange” story is all about going beyond cutting it in half and trying to instead “make the pie bigger”, creating value for both rather than for just my side.

But thank you Chris, for challenging us with this powerful alternative mindset to negotiations. May the worthy debate continue!

Comments welcome.


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