For more than three decades, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, was the go-to manual for teaching negotiation.
And then a hostage negotiator and business writer teamed up to supplant it. Chris Voss and Tahl Raz wrote Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it. Since its publication in Spring 2017, Never Split the Difference has out-sold Getting to Yes, and arguably has shaken the storied walls and classrooms of the Harvard Negotiation Project from which it emerged.
How did Voss and Raz take on this virtual monopoly on negotiations strategy and wisdom?
I set out to find out.
Analyzing the Raw Material
Instead of theorizing, I started with the text itself.
What follows is a deep analysis of how Voss and Raz structured their book, with emphasis on the first chapter.
We will see how they:
- Use an anecdotal hook which later serves to distinguish Voss (victoriously) from his Harvard counterparts.
- Describe Voss’s “outsider” background as a leading international hostage negotiator.
- Relate the to-be-described negotiation mentality and system to the Reader’s everyday life.
These three elements are achieved in the first 22 pages. (And that was the easy part.)
No matter the content of your book, we can learn from Voss and Raz’s approach. Understanding their methodology, mindset, and execution (from the lens of writing for business readers), will help you appropriately outline your own book. You’ll avoid wasting time and be able to focus on the elements (and the sequence of elements) which matter to your readers.
Summarizing Chapter 1: The Most Important Moments
My approaches are often questioned by my peers, but if you want to be the best, I say you need to inhabit the minds of who you see as the best. I saw no other way to understand how Voss and Raz approached building this book: I decided to type out the first chapter and take detailed notes.
I will share some of them as we go along.
To summarize Chapter 1, we will see:
- A snippet of an anecdote beginning with 'I was intimidated', wherein Voss negotiates for his sons life against two Harvard professors. And wins.
- The sequence where Voss, attending the winter Harvard negotiations course, trounces all comers with his 'How am I supposed to do that?' outsider approach.
- Voss & Raz decry the rational approach prescribed in Getting to Yes.
- Voss & Raz neatly gloss over, however, the forward to the same book, in which the authors mention Getting Past No, a book which addresses this exact problem. (They probably still have a point in terms of emphasis.)
- This leaving out of key details, however, tremendously helps Voss and Raz’s argument about Tactical Empathy later.
- Transition to how Getting to Yes wasn't working for hostage situations.
- How the FBI developed a better system, that focuses on Kahneman's System 1.
- Tactical Empathy is introduced. Listening is a martial art. It isn’t passive. It’s the most active thing a person can engage in.
- A pause to address reader's potential concern: "How does hostage negotiation relate to my life?" Allow me to let you in on a secret: Life is negotiation. I want ___.
- Chapter 1 closes with a summary of the balance of the book, chapters 2-10, including interest-piquing Black Swans (this is also the name of Voss’s consulting company).
- Structure of each chapter previewed: fast-paced negotiation; what worked and what didn't; case studies from real world showing those tools at play; return to the conclusion of hostage negotiation.
- Hint at the Negotiation One Sheet (to be shared at book's end).
- “I did this, while always thinking of myself as a regular guy. You're probably similar. I didn't know how. But now I do. Here's how.”
With these pivotal moments introduced, let’s move into the text of Chapter 1 itself, so you can see how Voss and Raz set up and paid off these critical moments.
The Art and Science of Chapter 1
In this section, I will relay many of the significant moments from the chapter, with additional relevant commentary.
I will also introduce important storytelling techniques, so watch out for these:
- Narrative Payoff - create expectations (make promises) and deliver them later
- Establishing a Villain - show the villain in action, ideally against the hero
- Declaration of Universality - “this concept is universal and relates to You, the reader”
- Underdog’s Victory - positioning the hero as the underdog and seeing him through to victory
- Extended Hook - a technique which gains the reader’s trust for the entire book
The book opens with:
- A snippet of an anecdote beginning with 'I was intimidated', wherein Voss negotiates for his sons life against two Harvard professors. And wins.
I was intimidated.
I'd spent more than two decades in the FBI, including fifteen years negotiating hostage situations from New York to the Philippines and the Middle East, and I was on top of my game. At any given time, there are ten thousand FBI agents in the Bureau, but only one lead international kidnapping negotiator. That was me.
But I'd never experienced a hostage situation so tense, so personal.
"We've go your son, Voss. Give us one million dollars or he dies."
Pause. Blink. Mindfully urge the heart rate back to normal.
Sure, I'd been in these types of situations before. Tons of them. Money for lives. But not like this. Not with my son on the line. Not $1 million. And not against people with fancy degrees and a lifetime of negotiating expertise.
You see, the people across the table--my negotiating counterparts--were Harvard Law School negotiating professors.
There you have the first 151 words of the book. Voss and Raz jump straight into the action, in media res. If you don’t hook the reader like this, it doesn’t matter how great the balance of your book is.
Voss and Raz establish a character (Chris Voss), who is competent yet human, still capable of feeling intimidated despite his decades of hostage negotiating at the highest levels. We have a conflict with capable opponents in need of resolution. When I first read this, I was immediately curious and wanted to read on to achieve the Narrative Payoff. Narrative Payoffs may be used quite frequently throughout your book. The entire chapter structure of Never Split the Difference is based on this powerful storytelling device.
But the payoff isn’t immediately delivered. The reader will have to wait a little longer. Instead, we get a line break and further setup—a shift back in time to events leading to the conflict—and only then the payoff now that the suspense is properly raised.
See how it works here:
I'd come up to Harvard to take a short executive negotiating course, to see if I could learn something from the business world's approach. It was supposed to be quiet and calm, a little professional development for an FBI guy trying to widen his horizons.
But when Robert Mnookin, the director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project, learned I was on campus, he invited me to his office for a coffee. Just to chat, he said.
I was honored. And scared. Mnooking is an impressive guy whom I'd followed for years: not only is he a Harvard law professor, he's also one of the big shots of the conflict resolution field and the author of Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight.1
To be honest, it felt unfair that Mnookin wanted me, a former Kansas City beat cop, to debate negotiation with him. But then it got worse. Just after Mnookin and I sat down, the door opened and another Harvard professor walked in. It was Gabriella Blum, a specialist in international negotiations, armed conflict, and counterterrorism, who'd spent eaight years as a negotiator for the Israeli National Security Council and the Israel Defense Forces. The tough-as-nails IDF.
On cue, Mnookin's secretary arrived and a put a tape recorder on the table. Mnookin and Blum smiled at me.
I'd been tricked.
"We've got your son, Voss. Give us one million dollars or he dies," Mnookin said, smiling. "I'm the kidnapper. What are you going to do?"
I experienced a flash of panic, but that was to be expected. It never changes: even after two decades negotiating for human lives you still feel fear. Even in a role-playing situation.
I calmed myself down. Sure, I was a street cop turned FBI agent playing against real heavyweights. And I wasn't a genius. But I was in this room for a reason. Over the years I had picked up skills, tactics, and a whole approach to human interaction that had not just helped me save lives but, as I recognize now looking back, had also begun to transform my own life. My years of negotiating had infused everything from how I dealt with customer service reps to my parenting style.
"C'mon. Get me the money or I cut your son's throat right now," Mnookin said. Testy.
I gave him a long, slow stare. Then I smiled.
"How am I supposed to do that?"
Mnookin paused. His expression had a touch of amused pity in it, like a dog when the cat it's been chasing turns around and tries to chase it back. It was as if we were playing different games, with different rules.
Mnooking regained his composure and eyed me with arched brows as if to remind me that we were still playing.
"So you're okay with me killing your son, Mr. Voss?"
"I'm sorry, Robert, how do I know he's even alive?" I said, using an apology and his first name, seeding more warmth into the interaction in order to complicate his gambit to bulldoze me. "I really am sorry, but how can I get you any money right now, much less one million dollars, if I don't even know he's alive?"
It was quite a sight to see such a brilliant man flustered by what must have seemed unsophisticated foolishness. On the contrary, though, my move was anything but foolish. I was employing what had become one of the FBI's most potent negotiating tools: the open-ended question.
Today, after some years evolving these tactics for the private sector in my consultancy, The Black Swan Group, we call this tactic calibrated questions: queries that the other side can respond to but that have no fixed answers. It buys you time. It gives your counterpart the illusion of control--they are the one with the answers and power after all--and it does all that without giving them any idea of how constrained they are by it.
Mnooking, predictably, started bumbling because the frame of the conversation had shifted from how I'd respond to the threat of my son's murder to how the professor would deal with the logistical issues involved in getting the money. How he would solve my problems. To every threat and demand he made, I continued to ask how I was supposed to pay him and how was I supposed to know that my son was alive.
After we'd been doing that for three minutes, Gabriella Blum interjected.
"Don't let him do that to you," she said to Mnookin.
"Well, you try," he said, throwing up his hands.
Blum dove in. She was tougher from her years in the Middle East. But she was still doing the bulldozer angle, and all she got were my same questions.
Mnookin rejoined the session, but he got nowhere either. His face started to get red with frustration. I could tell the irritation was making it hard to think.
"Okay, okay, Bob. That's all," I said, putting him out of his misery.
He nodded. My son would live to see another day.
"Fine," he said. "I suppose the FBI might have something to teach us."
Voss, our hero and the character we are meant to relate to as readers, emerges victorious over his Harvard Law professors.
(Important: Did you observe how many words it required to establish the Harvard Law professors as villains? Answer: Just three words: “I’d been tricked.”)
Voss uses “How I am supposed to do that?” to perfection. This is the first use of a central strategy—calibrated questions—further developed in later chapters.
Notice, too, the conclusion: “I supposed the FBI might have something to teach us.”
Voss and Raz next use Harvard’s skepticism toward their approach (which is being delivered the reader in real-time as they read) to get the reader on their side as they proceed. This builds on the establishment of the Harvard Law professors as the villains from a narrative sense.
This is crucial. If the reader isn’t relating to and rooting for the protagonist to overcome the villain, then teh reader will not accept new information.
Even better, Voss is cast as the underdog despite having just defeated two top Harvard professors. As we see, he goes on to severely outclass his next opponents.
This cannot be understated: setting up the Harvard Law professors, and later the Harvard Negotiations Project, and with it the thesis of Getting to Yes, pits the relatable outside Chris Voss against the rigid establishment institution. While this may seem subtle at first glance, it is undoubtedly intentional. The fact that Voss and Raz later pay homage to Getting to Yes with overtures to the effect of “it is brilliant” or “it was groundbreaking when it came out” only underscores their intention to put Never Split the Difference in conversation with and in competition with those theories and approaches. For me, this hero-villain dynamic is setup smoothly with a few choice adjectives, snippets of interior monologue, and careful descriptions, none better than I’d been tricked.
(If you have a moment, feast your eyes back on the section above. You will notice adjectives like ‘testy’, ‘tough-as-nails’, ‘bulldoze’ used to describe the professors and their motives.)
This is a textbook case of Establishing the Villain - showing the villain in action, ideally against the hero.
Now, let’s continue in search of that Narrative Payoff I wanted. But here Voss and Raz have a trick of their own up their sleeve. First, Voss and Raz take a moment, while you the reader are desiring a resolution, to explain how this book came into being. The section is not overly long, as they do not want the reader to forget about the conflict they’ve left hanging, nor do they want to create impatience:
I had done more than just hold my own against two of Harvard's distinguished leaders. I had taken on the best of the best and come out on top.
But was it just a fluke? For more than three decades, Harvard had been the world epicenter of negotiating theory and practice. All I knew about the techniques we used at the FBI was that they worked. In the twenty years I spent at the Bureau we'd designed a system that had successfully resolved almost every kidnapping we applied it to. But we didn't have grand theories.
Our techniques were the products of experiential learning; they were developed by agents in the field, negotiating through crisis and sharing stories of what succeeded and what failed. It was an iterative process, not an intellectual one, as we refined the tools we used day after day. And it was urgent. Our tools had to work, because if they didn't someone died.
But why did they work? That was the question that drew me to Harvard, to that office with Mnookin and Blum. I lacked confidence outside my narrow world. Most of all, I needed to articulate my knowledge and learn how to combine it with theirs--and they clearly had some--so I could understand, systematize, and expand it.
Yes, our techniques clearly worked with mercenaries, drug dealers, terrorists, and brutal killers. But, I wondered, what about with normal humans?
As I'd soon discover in the storied halls of Harvard, our techniques made great sense intellectually, and they worked everywhere.
It turned out that our approach to negotiation held the keys to unlock profitable human interactions in every domain and every interaction and every relationship in life.
This book is how it works.
I was particularly impressed by the arguments leading up to the declaration of universality. Finding truths and wisdom which are widely applicable is impressive and also brings any reader into line with them. Join our team, this works for everyone. This works even though Voss and Raz will later downplay what they are doing with the line, “But beware: this is not another pop-psych book. It's a deep and thoughtful (and most of all, practical) take on leading psychological theory that distills lessons from a twenty-four-year career in the FBI and ten years teaching and consulting in the best business schools and corporations in the world.”
I love the next part of the book, where Voss disarms and demolishes hot shot Harvard students in the winter negotiations course which he “talked his way into” as the only “outsider”.
- Sequence where Voss, attending winter Harvard negotiation course, trounces all comers with his 'How am I supposed to do that?' approach.
THE SMARTEST DUMB GUY IN THE ROOM
To answer my questions, a year later, in 2006, I talked my way into Harvard Law School's Winter Negotiation Course. The best and brightest compete to get into this class, and it was filled with brilliant Harvard students getting law and business degrees and hotshot students from other top Boston universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts. The Olympic trials for negotiating. And I was the only outsider.
The first day of the course, all 144 of us piled into a lecture hall for an introduction and then we split into four groups, each led by a negotiation instructor. After we'd had a chat with our instructor--mine was named Sheila Heen, and she's a good buddy to this day--we were partnered off in pairs and sent into mock negotiations. Simple: one of us was selling a product, the other was the buyer, and each had clear limits on the price they could take.
My counterpart was a languid redhead named Andy (a pseudonym), one of those guys who wear their intellectual superiority like they wear their khakis: with relaxed confidence. He and I went into an empty classroom overlooking one of those English-style squares on Harvard's campus, and we each used the tools we had. Andy would throw out an offer and give a rationally airtight explanation for why it was a good one--an inescapable logic trap--and I'd answer with some variation of "How am I supposed to do that?"
We did this a bunch of times until we got to a final figure. When we left, I was happy. I thought I'd done pretty well for a dumb guy.
After we all regrouped in the classroom, Sheila went around the students and asked what price each group had agreed on, and then wrote the result on the board.
Finally, it was my turn.
"Chris, how did you do with Andy?" she asked. "How much did you get?"
I'll never forget Sheila's expression when I told her what Andy had agreed to pay. Her whole face first went red, as if she couldn't breath, and then out popped a little strangled gasp like a baby bird's hungry cry. Finally, she started to laugh.
"You got literally every dime he had," she said, "and in his brief he was supposed to hold a quarter of it back in reserve for future work."
Andy sank deep in his chair.
Even after reading this passage a few times, what I am still amazed by is my sense of Voss as an underdog. If we were to dissect these paragraphs carefully, we would observe choice descriptions being used to position Voss as such.
If Voss and Raz didn’t succeed in positioning Voss as an underdog, then the reader would not experience the Underdog’s Victory
In the telling of your story, whether thought leadership, memoir, or sporting tale, you will have this same opportunity to portray characters advantageously.
We have a line break after those 413 words, and continue straight into the continuation of this extended anecdote:
The next day the same thing happened with another partner.
I mean, I absolutely destroyed the guy's budget.
It didn't make sense. A lucky one-off was one thing. But this was a pattern. With my old-school, experiential knowledge, I was killing guys who knew every cutting-edge trick you could find in a book.
The thing was, it was the cutting-edge techniques these guys were using that felt dated and old. I felt like I was Roger Federer and I had used a time machine to go back to the 1920s to play in a tennis tournament of distinguished gentlemen who wore white pantsuits and used wood rackets and had part-time training regimens. There I was with my titanium alloy racket and dedicated personal trainer and computer-strategized serve-and-volley plays. The guys I was playing were just as smart--actually, more so--and we were basically playing the same game with the same rules. But I had skills they didn't.
"You're getting famous for your special style, Chris," Sheila said, after I announced my second day's results.
I smiled like the Cheshire cat. Winning was fun.
"Chris, why don't you tell everybody your approach," Sheila said. "It seems like all you do to these Harvard Law School students is say 'No' and stare at them, and they fall apart. Is it really that easy?"
I knew what she meant: While I wasn't actually saying "No," the questions I kept asking sounded like it. They seemed to insinuate that the other side was being dishonest and unfair. And that was enough to make them falter and negotiate with themselves. Answering my calibrated queestions demanded deep emotional strengths and tactical psychological insights that the toolbox they'd been given did not contain.
"I'm just asking questions," I said. "It's a passive-aggressive approach. I just ask the same three or four open-ended questions over and over and over and over. They get worn out answering and give me everything I want."
Andy jumped in his seat as if he'd been stung by a bee.
"Damn!" he said. "That's what happened. I had no idea."
For me, this 773-word sequence ensured that I read the rest of the book. Voss’s victory in the hallowed halls of Harvard was a victory for Voss and Raz: they’d succeeded in what I call The Extended Hook. After you’ve gotten the reader to read past page 1, you have to get them to read past page 5. Congratulations Voss and Raz. You had my trust from this point on.
Next, we have a transition away from Harvard.
By the time I'd finished my winter course at Harvard, I'd actually become friends with some of my fellow students. Even with Andy.
If my time at Harvard showed me anything, it was that we at the FBI had a lot to teach the world about negotiating.
In my short stay I realized that without a deep understanding of human psychology, without the acceptance that we are all crazy, irrational, impuslive, emotionally driven animals, all the raw intelligence and mathematical logic in the world is little help in the fraught, shifting interplay of two people negotiating.
Yes, perhaps we are the only animal that haggles--a monkey does not exchange a portion of his banana for another's nuts--but no matter how we dress up our negotiations in mathematical theories, we are always an animal, always acting and reacting first and foremost from our deeply held but mostly invisible and inchoate fears, needs, perceptions, and desires.
That's not how these folks at Harvard learned it, though. Their theories and techniques all had to do with intellectual power, logic, authoritative acronyms like BATNA and ZOPA, rational notions of value, and a moral concept of what was fair and what was not.
And built on top of this false edifice of rationality was, of course, process. They had a script to follow, a predetermined sequence of actions, offers, and counteroffers designed in a specific order to bring about a particular outcome. It was as if they were dealing with a robot, that if you did a, b, c, and d in a certain fixed order, you would get x. But in the real world negotiation is far too unpredictable and complex for that. You may have to do a then d, and then maybe q.
If I could dominate the country's brightest students with just one of the many emotionally attuned negotiating techniques I had developed and used against terrorists and kidnappers, why not apply them to business? What was the difference between bank robbers who took hostages and CEOs who used hardball tactics to drive down the price of a billion-dollar acquisition?
After all, kidnappers are just businessmen trying to get the best price.
This transition is well written. And it will get us into the next section:
- Transition to how Getting to Yes wasn't working for hostage situations.
We will pick this up in Part 2/3 of my Series on Never Split the Difference.
How Am I Supposed to Do That?
You can be excused for wondering how dissecting Voss and Raz’s approach relates to planning, writing, and polishing your own book. After all, your book probably isn’t about hostage negotiation. However, in reading and reviewing several other top-performing business books, I have been enticed by the patterns of emotional, rational, and storytelling that spark my imagination and curiosity. Recognizing these persuasive structural and rhetorical techniques helps in the reading of books like this, too.