This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Never Split the Difference

Another book recommended by colleagues, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz (book website).  This is a great book on negotiation (and a bunch of related topics). Voss and Raz start each topic with a life-and-death hostage negotiation and then delve into the ideas behind the topic and where these apply in the less dire scenarios people face every day.  The authors use Voss' own experiences in the FBI as the lead international kidnapping negotiator, his research and studies into what makes negotiations work (or not), and his teaching and consulting work.  These elements are combined in a fairly engaging style: starting each chapter with a hostage situation made me want to keep reading to find out what happened, ... and learn a lot along the way.  

The reason that this book is relevant to people outside the small circle of people who do hostage negotiation: "The majority of the interactions we have at work and at home are negotiations that boil down to the expression of a simple, animalistic, urge: I want." 

Voss talks about a lot of the traditional negotiation tactics and why they often do not work in the context of hostage negotiation - through his own experience and that of other hostage negotiators.  He asks a question in the opening chapters about one of the better known negotiation/battering books out there: "Why was it that everyone had read this bestselling business book and endorsed it as one of the greatest negotiation texts ever written, and yet so few could actually follow it successfully?"  Maybe it was the assumptions or beliefs people have about negotiation?  And this is the heart of the book: many of our assumptions are wrong.  And (of course) Voss is here to correct them. 

One idea that comes up early and often in the book is something I have seen many other places: we cannot know everything. Assuming you know what the person is thinking - what their motivation is - will lock you into a line of thinking that may hide a real solution. Assuming you know the minimum or maximum "price" will lock you from finding an even better one. Negotiation is all about discovery - about being ready to be surprised by new information. You must discover as much as possible about your counterpart before and during the negotiations. Being too smart to discover something new is a sure way to "lose" a negotiation. 

Along with this idea of discovery is another thread of getting to understand the counterpart's situation well enough that you can summarize and repeat it back to them. But! The tricky part isn't that you get agreement that _you_ understand the situation. What you are looking for is that they see that you understand.  When you describe it back to them they say, "That's right!" rather than "You're right." How do you get to that understanding is the subject of the early chapters.

Mirror the ideas and comments of your counterpart: reflect back to them what they are saying to learn more. It can be as simple as repeating the last few words that they've said to you ... and then letting it hang. Add an "I'm sorry ..." in there.  It develops an empathic link with the counterpart. Let them follow on from their own thoughts without evaluating or commenting. Don't give them the opportunity to reply with "yes" or "no" or other one-word answers. Allow them time to talk, rather than rushing to fill the void with your own words.  As I read the book and this idea of mirroring came up again and again, I kept thinking that this would somehow change my mind about the counterpart as well - something like a Stockholm Syndrome.  Voss talks about this to some extent later, but you really must have a picture of where you want to go, but still be open to learning more about the situation. And this mirroring process allows more information to flow.

Label their state of being, their thinking, their emotions. This starts to get at the Stockholm Syndrome issue: the idea is to empathize, but not sympathize. Voss talks about something further - tactical empathy: not only understanding their feelings and mindset, but understanding what is behind that, so that you can use this understanding to influence how you will respond. It's building up more of that picture and being open to a discovery that can lead to a breakthrough. Along with this discussion of understanding, Voss suggests putting your counterpart's negativity or reluctance to talk onto the table with an "accusation audit" - state the worst case feelings or thoughts your counterpart might have, acknowledging that you understand where they might be coming from. All of this is with a mind to developing that deeper understanding of the situation.

Have you given up on this project?

Start with "No" rather than "Yes".  There a tricky idea here - many of us are afraid of "no" (rejection), and want to go for "yes" responses.  But in some cases it is better to start with a "no" to frame the situation. The example question here is something along the lines of, "Have you given up on this project?" The idea is to get people to back off on the extreme label of what's happening. Allow them an initial "no" in order to clarify what you BOTH do not want. Voss talked about the qualified "yes" or the "yes" you get from people who just want you to stop asking questions - those "yes" answers are not helpful in any scenario. In fact, "yes" will sometimes distract from what is really happening.  Whereas a "no" can tell you a lot about where people are in relation to your understanding of the situation.  Voss lists a bunch of reasons someone might say "no" that sound an awful lot like the TOC Layers of Resistance: I am not yet ready to agree; You are making me feel uncomfortable; I do not understand; I don't think I can afford it; I want something else; I need more information; I want to talk it over with someone else. All of these variations of "no" reveal more about the other party, and lead you to better understand the situation at hand. 

With a developing understanding of your counterpart and their circumstances, you can go further with the help of psychology and human behavior. Voss talks about using things like prospect theory, certainty effectloss aversion, taking advantage of time (deadlines) to create opportunities (without getting stuck yourself), and using the idea of fairness to shape the conversation. In this section, he guides the reader into some specific ideas that can generate surprising results.  And it is in this discussion that the title of the book arises, Never Split the Difference: don't just take some middle deal because there is always more to the scenario than what is on the surface. 

How am I supposed to do that?

Digging deeper into learning and understanding is the idea of the calibrated question. The idea is to get your counterpart to pause and think, rather than getting them to react. Ask questions that give them some semblance of control of the situation. Particularly in highly charged negotiations, having a sense of being in control will help defuse. The chapter on calibrated questions gives a number of examples, but the basic form is to ask "How" and "What" questions, like "How am I supposed to do that?" All of this geared to getting your counterpart to develop the solution and give him some control. This is a perfect example of getting the other party involved in the solution - if you make it their solution, they are more likely to go along with it.

Of course, there are pitfalls and watch-outs throughout the process. Dealings will fall apart if you get excited and emotional about the dealings - at least at the wrong time. Voss reminds the reader frequently that the negotiation isn't about you.  The negotiations may go great, but if it cannot be executed, it isn't successful either. Do the other players on both sides know what is expected of them? Voss reminds the reader that the teams of people on boths sides have to be "in" on the deal as well, otherwise someone meaning well could block a key element or even destroy the trust that has been established between the main actors.  

There is always more to the discovery process.  The final chapter talks about the idea of "black swans" in the context of a negotiation. There may be information that has been hidden or unspoken - information that, once revealed, can greatly change the nature of the negotiations. This information can give you leverage into the thinking and motivations of your counterpart. It could be a deep understanding of religious motivations, or a connection could be made on an interest or passion that changes the tone of the negotiation.  The job of the negotiator (and their team) is to listen for these opportunities. 

In this discussion of black swans, Voss talked about a topic that resonated with me because it connects strongly to the Four Pillars of TOC and specifically "people are good."  When I think, "they're crazy" when they reject a seemingly reasonable offer, I am breaking that pillar. What I should be thinking is "what have I missed?"  Voss suggests there are three general areas from which the counterpart might be operating: bad information or invalid assumptions; they have a constraint - they cannot do what we thought they could; or they have other interests than what is on the surface of the negotiation.

There is plenty to think on in this book. And I have already tried some of the ideas in my conversations with clients and family.  It will be interesting to bounce more of these ideas off my colleagues and see where it takes us.

You get what you ask for

Get Lamp - a blast from my past