Never Split The Difference: This Book Helped Me Get a $33K Pay Rise [quotes and notes]

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It, Chris Voss, 2016 (Amazon US; Amazon Australia)


A former FBI hostage negotiator shares his field-tested negotiation tips.

Definitely one of my top-10 all-time favourite books. Unlike many other self-help books that drag on and fluff around the key points, this one gets straight to it.

They say that buying and read books delivers an exceptional ROI – “invest in yourself”. This book was literally an exceptional ROI for me: less than $20 and a couple of hours of reading time yielded an extra $33k annually (same role, same company).

Besides negotiation, the book also offers incredibly practical insights on human psychology. For instance, rather than asking “why” it’s much more effective to ask “what do you hope to achieve by…”

While I share a few of my key take aways here, do keep in mind that this is not intended to be a book summary. If you want to reap full benefits, then I’d highly recommend investing the time and a couple of dollars on the actual book.


Key take-aways

Most negotiation techniques taught in business schools and bestsellers assume that people are rational. For instance, BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and ZOPA (Zone Of Possible Agreement) are built on a false edifice of rationality. Similarly, the ‘Getting To Yes’ technique popularized in the early 80s advocates separating the person/emotion from the problem and instead focusing on their rational interests. However, emotions should be made central to an effective negotiation, rather than an undesirable thing to be overcome.

Be a mirror. You may already be familiar with the mirroring technique: repeat what the other person said back to them but as a question. Much like how incentives are under-estimated in economics, this technique is under-estimated. Mirroring not only demonstrates that you’ve heard and understood them, but also slows gives both parties a chance to catch up to what’s been said.

“Smart people are often bad negotiators because they think they know everything.”

Mirror only the words though – not the tone, delivery, or body language.

“Negotiation is not an act of battle, it’s a process of discovery.”

Label their emotion. Instead of denying or ignoring emotions, identify and influence them. Emotion is a tool, not an obstacle. Labeling is validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it and giving it a name: “it seems like”, “it sounds like”, “it looks like”. For example a professor asked students to volunteer for a challenge, and no one raised their hand. Then he said, “In case you’re worried… I can assure you that it’ll be horrible. But those that do volunteer will get more out of it than anyone else.” Many hands were then raised. By labeling a potentially negative emotion and and complementing it with a positive, solution-oriented one, people are more encouraged to move forward.

Yes doesn’t always mean yes, and No doesn’t always mean no. In fact, contrary to popular wisdom “no” is actually a good thing in negotiations. No allows people to protect themselves – it preserves the human need for autonomy. No also allows real issues to be surfaced and lets people feel in control. If someone says No, you can respond with one of these: “what about this doesn’t work for you”, “what would you need for this to work”, “it seems like there’s something here that bothers you.” Conversely, beware of the fake Yes’s.

Get the other person to agree no the same thing 3 times, each phrased in different ways. Because a Yes is nothing without a How. Guarantee execution. 

“The Rule of Three is simply getting the other guy to agree to the same thing three times in the same conversation… When I first learned this skill… feared sounding like a broken record or coming off as really pushy… The answer, I learned is to vary your tactics.”

“That’s right” are the two most powerful words that transform any negotiation. If the other person says “that’s right”, you know you’re on the right track, especially if you’ve been hit with a series of No’s. But if the other person says “you’re right”, that’s a disaster. 

You’re right is often a good indicator they are not vested in what is being discussed.”

Create the illusion of control by asking questions that show that you need their intelligence to overcome a problem. Examples:

  • The FBI team answered every one of the kidnapper’s with a question. “How do I know Jose is alive?” “We don’t have that kind of money. How can we raise that much?” “How can we pay you anything until we know Jose is okay?” This keeps the kidnappers engaged but off balance. But more importantly gives them the illusion that they have control.
  • A group of nurses fail to stop a hospital patient from leaving. But one nurse asks “what do you hope to achieve by leaving now?” instead of telling him “you can’t leave”. 

Learn to say no without saying no.

  • “How am I supposed to do that”
  • “Your offering is very generous, I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me”
  • “I’m sorry but I’m afraid I just can’t do that”

“Learn the art of disagreeing without sounding disagreeable.”


Negotiating a pay rise

While these tips worked for me at a certain place at a certain time, I can only speak from limited experience. Regardless, perhaps they’re worth sharing as they might provide some insight. 

(i) First, you need to be genuinely worth it. Getting a pay rise is not about talking your way into squeezing more out from your employer. It’s about closing the gap between the real value you’re adding versus the value you’re being currently being under-compensated for. So no matter how flashy your “negotiation skills” are, if you can’t back it up with results, you might get lucky once or twice, but it likely won’t last.

So rather than “how can I get paid more?”, instead ask “how can I add more value so that it makes complete sense for me to get paid more?”

If you believe you’re already adding much more value than what you’re being compensated for, then great. If not, work on that first.

(ii) Second, specify and quantify the additional value you’re adding. Frame achievements as close to tangible dollars and numbers, rather than subjective and intangible achievements. Wherever possible, show rather than tell.

(iii) Third, frame your case as reasonable while remaining confident. My pitch was something like this:

“I was originally hired to do A, B, C on this salary. Now I’m doing A, B, C, D, and E on the same salary. I’d love to continue adding more value here, and I was hoping my compensation could reflect this? Here’s some examples of where I’ve added value. This thing I did saved the company $X; and this other thing I did brought in an extra $Y revenue… Based on this, would you agree that a Z% increase is a fair reflection of the increasing value that I have added?”

Expect that their immediate reaction to naturally be no at first. Don’t be discouraged by it. Read between their lines, understand and listen to their reasoning. Apply the Never Split The Difference points above: mirroring, labeling, welcome the No, ask questions etc.

I’ll update this post with more tips once I get more experience and success with this. Good luck.

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