• Stefan Szepesi

So what do you think of the book Never Split the Difference?

I get asked this question a lot at the end of training sessions... The book by former chief of FBI's international hostage negotiations Chris Voss must be doing extremely well. My usual answer -"it's complicated"- is not meant diplomatically but more as a place holder with time running out and the seminar closing...


So what do I think?


First of all I LOVE the title. There is no better way to debunk the myth that negotiation must mean compromise.


Second, the title is wrong, as is any slogan with the word NEVER. "Pick your battles" is a great slogan. On issues that are of trivial concern it is very much ok -I would say it is often smart- to split the candy bar down the middle so you can focus on what makes life truly worth your while.


Third, I thoroughly ENJOY reading about hostage negotiations. Listening is king. Every word matters. The clock is ticking. Cameras are rolling. Hostage negotiation is an extremely difficult skill that only few can master with excellence.


Fourth, hostage takers are as far apart from your negotiation counterpart as a 40 year old whiskey is from a glass of water. The first grabs our attention; the second is mundane and daily. Chris Voss speaks about "throat-cutters", people with a smile that talk about win-win but are really seeking to destroy you and rob you of your every penny. Of course, people that take pleasure in thriving at the expense of others exist. But they are actually very rare. Most people want deals and relations that last. Most people want "good for you, great for me". Many just struggle to achieve those two things, not because they enjoy cutting your throat, but because they cannot help themselves.


Ordinary negotiators can actually learn a great deal from what hostage negotiators do, even though they really only face their next door neighbour holding a pencil.

Fifth, in contrast to hostage takers, much of hostage negotiation theory and practice is actually extremely relevant to everyday mundane negotiation. The art of deep listening. Empathy ("tactical rapport" as hostage negotiators call it). Team work. The humility of knowing there is far more that you do not know compared to what you do know. Creativity under pressure. So ordinary negotiators can actually learn a great deal from what hostage negotiators do, even though they really only face their next door neighbour holding a pencil. See this great TEDx talk by Scott Tillema for example.


Six, Chris Voss' slamming of the Harvard school of "principled" negotiation (sometimes dubbed "win-win" or "mutual gains") in the book and elsewhere makes little sense. The main argument that it overemphasizes rational thinking and lacks the insights from psychology that makes hostage negotiation the alfa and omega is nonsense. The first principle of the foundational work of the Harvard school (Fisher/Ury's Getting to Yes) is separating people from the problem. Tons of books have followed since on how that can be done. At the same time, Voss uses Harvard lingo but spelled differently. He believes business deals, in the end, should be "mutually beneficial" to actually provide lasting benefits (as opposed to... "mutual gains"?). He strenuously avoids the use of the term "interests" and uses other terms that mean the same. Perhaps because that term is at the heart of Harvard school "interest-based negotiation" theory?


So it's complicated.