Haste Makes Waste

TL;DR - Never Split the Difference

25 October 2020

I’m on a quest to read the founding texts of WillowTree, in part because I like learning stuff, but also because the air outside is poisonous and society is constantly two skips away from supernova.

Anyway here are my notes on Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss. Sleep tight!

Link to Goodreads

  • Voss’s thesis is that every negotiation contains information which is known, and information that is unknown. Your goal in any negotiation, whether its for a project or a hostage, is to elicit as much information as you can, until you find the “Black Swan”. That is to say, the unknown unknown; a detail you didn’t know that you didn’t know.
    • The title of the book stems from his advice to never settle for 50/50 in any negotiation. This is in part due to his career; if you negotiate for half of a hostage, you effectively saved zero hostages.
    • Voss argues that any compromise is just both parties losing. I reject this world view, but I can see how it would be beneficial in his line of work.

  • (v) Mirroring - The act of repeating the thesis of someone’s statement, to reduce threat, appear attentive, and elicit more information. Tone and emphasis are extremely important; it should sound somewhere between asking for details, and stating a fact. Not like you’re preparing to disagree; that will backfire and create threat. For example:

“Hey, that wasn’t fair!”

“You think I’m being unfair?“

“Yes, because…”

  • (v) Labeling - Giving a barrier or negative emotion a name. People like it when you prove you understand them; if you’re off base they’ll correct you. (“It seems that you’re frustrated about the timeline.” Or “It sounds like you’d prefer to release sooner.“)

  • Don’t be afraid of being told “no”. It helps you learn about your partner’s goals. When you finally agree, you are more likely to execute successfully than if you were polite about it.

  • Ask “calibrated questions”, instead of giving a hard “no”. A calibrated question is one which omits negativity, can’t simply be answered with yes/no, and invites your counterpart to help resolve their own barriers. (“How can we solve this problem?” or “What are we trying to accomplish?“)

  • The author really, really loves the question “How am I supposed to do that?” as an alternative to flatly declining a request or giving an excuse.
    • Actually, I’ve had some success with this one. 🤷‍♀️

  • Silence in conversation is good. Usually. Allow your words have weight after labeling or mirroring.

The Dunking Booth:

Wow, we got here quick this time, huh?

  • Voss uses the phrase “X on steroids” at least 3 times.

  • Most of the text pertaining to specific hostage negotiations read like a cross-post from /r/thathappened, and can be skipped entirely without loss of context.
    • As the primary draw of the book, I was looking forward to these anecdotes. But honestly, reading them is pure agony. They are palpably thirsty for your admiration; the bulk of the work is much more concerned with convincing you that Voss is so very cool and professional than teaching any particular concept.

  • He uses a lot of problematic and unnecessarily sexualized or gendered descriptions. Some examples on pages 111, 88, and 115.

“So let’s undress [the concept of] ‘no’.”

I lost count of the number of times he used this. There are so many, readily available alternatives, so I really don’t understand it. Once, I heard someone use the phrase “open kimono” to describe a process which is transparent, and it reminds me a lot of that.

Do men wear kimonos? Yes! Is that what the speaker is envisioning? No, of course not. Same deal.

“A few years ago I fell in love with a red Toyota 4Runner. Actually, not just “red”, but “Salsa Red Perl”. Kind of a smoldering red that seemed to glow at night. How sexy is that?”

I think the concept of “metaphorical gender” is really interesting. When you think about a “sexy” shade of red, what are you picturing? Maybe a car in this case (which incidentally is more likely to be referred to as “she” than “he”), but divorced from the content of this book, maybe you’d also think about a full lipstick, or a very high pump. The concepts or objects a society assigns masculinity or femininity is a fascinating subject, IMO!

“Sleeping in the same bed but dreaming different dreams is an old Chinese expression that describes the intimacy of partnership…without the communication necessary to sustain it.”

I understand this isn’t his idiom, but it still annoys me because he didn’t have to choose it, either. He explains it right there just fine, “intimacy without communication”. Obviously he did not need the idiom, if it still necessitated explanation in plain language. Its inclusion makes his point about emotional intimacy less clear than it was before. Ugh.

Anyway, onward!

  • Due to the sensitive nature of his work, he provides pseudonyms for some of the characters in his story. Totally understandable. But one of the names provided is “Jesus Bueno”, and while Voss never specifies whether that one was a pseudonym, I really hope it isn’t. Because otherwise, he chose that out of the infinite number of combinations available to him.
  • The “no means yes” chapter, beginning on page 91, has some problematic undertones. Sometimes no just means no, fam. I get that he means refusing to accept that answer in a hostage situation, but when you’re also billing this as a communications text for business settings, maybe try and make that distinction clear.

  • Page 193 is devoted to what is essentially a negotiation horoscope. Which is to say, it is entirely anecdotal and unfalsifiable. I checked my star charts and it turns out my communication style’s sun sign is scorpio. ♏🦂⚠

Final Impressions:

I’m glad I read it, and I won’t read it again.

Never Split the Difference contains some useful information, but could have been at least 70% shorter. It is perhaps the best example of “I couldn’t sell a pamphlet so I wrote a book” that I’ve seen so far.

It gets extra points for having the most interesting concept out of any of the professional development books I’ve gone through. Unfortunately, that unique perspective is also the source of all its pacing problems. At times I felt like I was reading a self-insert NCIS fan-fiction.

I give it one out of five peppers. 🌶


(You just read 258 pages! 🎉)

Obligatory disclaimer: the views expressed here are my own, and do not represent WillowTree or its partners. I am doing this purely for funsies.