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Chris Voss on Negotiating with Others and Ourselves: PYP 208

Chris Voss learned negotiation in one of the most high-stakes professions possible: as a lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI. Having learned from the super-smart, super-rational Harvard negotiation experts, Chris quickly discovered that humans are not rational, and that principles and tactics that work with Rational Humans (a fictitious species) do not reliably work with Real Humans.

Drawing upon the work of behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman, Amos Twersky, and Dan Ariely, and upon hundreds of real-life situations with bank robbers, terrorists, hardened criminals, and all manner of desperate people, Chris has distilled his counter-intuitive approach to negotiation into a fabulous book, Never Split the Difference.

Three days after finishing the book (which cost me around $20 on amazon), I used one tactic to save $500 on a new car. Now that's a return on investment!

My kids also devoured the book, and used it fruitfully in their own lives, and we all were astounded at how quickly we had acquired what we felt was a new superpower: the ability to represent our own interests and get more of what made us happy while at the same time improving our relationships with others.

We were curious whether and how Chris's advice would translate to the world of health behaviors. Whether the principles and strategies in Never Split the Difference would help spouses negotiate over healthy eating options. Would aid employees confronted with daily donuts at work. Would make it easier to overcome the voices of our own Inner Pigs and Sloths that want us to consume copious amounts of Little Debby's Nutty Bars while we sit on the couch binge-watching Netflix.

The conversation has quickly become one of my favorite episodes. I shared an advance recording with my coaching students and members of the Big Change Program, because I didn't want them to have to wait even a few weeks to start putting Chris's wisdom into practice in their lives.

And now it's your turn to benefit.

In our conversation, Chris and I covered:

  • the power of a cold read plus empathy
  • giving ourselves permission to ask for things
  • working at a suicide hotline: “the best possible training” for hostage negotiating (and family dinners)
  • humans are not logical
  • why “coming to a wise agreement” is impossible – and a counterproductive approach
  • negotiation as one form of building better relationships with others
  • making deposits in the karma bank of life – whether it “benefits” us or not
  • the Lift Game: “how many people can I lift up today?”
  • proactive naming of the negative (“you're not going to like this”)
  • the power of effective pauses
  • letting the other side have control too
  • “how do you want me to deal with this?”
  • invitations to collaborate build ownership
  • the illusive and priceless Black Swan – and how to coax it into your negotiation
  • the power of innocent observations (even – hell, especially – when they're wrong)
  • why mislabeling is so powerful
  • why we should welcome (and seek out) “No” from our counterpart
  • the Jedi Mind Trick of mirroring
  • how to negotiate with ourselves (using “you” instead of “I”)
  • how to coach ourselves more effectively and compassionately
  • and much more…

Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.


Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz

The Black Swan Group – Chris's consulting and training company

The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman


Read the full transcript here

HOWARD: Chris Voss, welcome to the Plant Yourself Podcast!

CHRIS: Thank you, Howard. Pleasure to be here.

HOWARD: So I wanted to talk to you about negotiation. But specifically, negotiation around advocating for the healthy lifestyles we want -- negotiating with family, friends, co-workers, servers at restaurant, things like that. But first, I want to start with you and your story, which you tell in your fantastic book Never Split The Difference. I'm going to say right now, everybody should get this book. It is the quickest and most profound return on investment that I've ever had from a book. Within a week of buying it and reading it, I had saved five hundred dollars on a car negotiation. And as I was just saying before we started recording, last night I saved myself about four hours by negotiating a seat on a different flight. So even before I've fully learned the skills -- by just reading the examples and seeing how I can apply it to my life, it has already been one of the best things I have ever bought.

CHRIS: It sounds like you've picked this stuff up pretty quickly!

HOWARD: Well, I have yet to do hardball! I mean, I asked for a thousand [on the car negotiation] and I got five hundred, so I have probably neglected the title advice of Never Split The Difference, but the point is, like, I actually felt like I could ASK. And before I read the book, I would've even have asked. So even just at that level, it's been a profound influence on me and actually on my family as well. 

CHRIS: It's crazy, people somehow feel like we don't have permission to even ask [for what we want] -- it's an invisible barrier that we put on ourselves. Even still, I do that to myself sometimes. 

HOWARD: I'm surprised to hear that because the way you describe yourself in the book, and in watching your videos, you seem very -- I forget the terminology -- you seem like you're not an Accommodator or an Analyst but the third type. 

CHRIS: The Assertive type. Well, I was not born assertive. I recently had to talk my way into a closed business club, in a closed business, on a Saturday. I had called in advance, but they weren't answering the phone. And I had already run across a security guard in a related building, who was a really grumpy person. And I just, like, had all this negativity spinning in my head, and I almost didn't walk over there. 

But I did go over to the building and I did pretty much what you talked about doing with the airline -- I walked over and did what you kinda call a cold read one on someone -- I just kind of empathized [with the person I was approaching] in the situation. Because I knew that I was about to be a pain in the neck in getting into this building. I just said "look, I've got an insane request, this is going to be ridiculous." 

And this woman just brightened right up and soon enough, she walked over to the elevator and used her key to open it up. And I was just like, "Wow. If I had thought it was going to be that easy, I wouldn't have put myself through all that negativity beforehand". So yeah, we do this to ourselves. 

HOWARD: Yeah. And a lot of the people I work with, it's almost our trademark to be accommodators, to avoid conflict, to make everyone else happy. And as a result, of course, we wind up making nobody else happy. We just infect them with our martyrdom. So I really wanted to have you here, to give us all a gentle kick in the ass to ask for the things we deserve, to ask for the things that are going to make us happy and make the people around us happy. 

CHRIS: Yeah. Come to the edge and FLYYYY. Right?

HOWARD: Yes. So let's begin the leap! One thing you talk about is, you talk about the old rules of negotiation and the new rules of negotiation. I'd love for you to just give us a quick tour of your journey, so tell us who you are -- for people haven't read the book yet -- like, tell us what your cred is, and what your experience is, and how you came to adopt these new rules that are in your book Never Split The Difference. 

CHRIS: I'm a recovering FBI agent. [laughs] "My name is Chris and I haven't investigated anyone for seven years."  Like I'm in an AA meeting, right? I was a small-town Iowa guy who ended up as the FBI's lead international kidnap negotiator. 

I'm from a blue collar, middle-class family. My dad was an entrepreneur, in a town of 7,000 people, just trying to build a better life for himself and his family by being an honest, hardworking businessman. I kinda grew up with the idea that Hey, we can figure this out. Hard work. Showing up and hard work can get you a long way. 

And I like to have fun with the people that I work with, and so consequently, I ended up with a couple different groups of people within the FBI at different times, where we liked to work hard and have fun with each other. I was lucky enough to be on some great teams, and we worked on some cool stuff. Won the Attorney General's Award, I was nominated for the FBI Director's Award -- I was nominated for the Attorney General's Award several times in fact, mostly because I've worked with great people. And I try to be understanding of them. 

And in trying to get better at hostage negotiation, I talked my way into Harvard Business School's negotiation course, and learned a lot from those guys. I had been trying to apply this stuff in business and personal life since my early days on a suicide hotline. I was like, "Why should this great communication and empathy and really understanding the other side and making the other side feel good [and feel] understood-- why should [these tools] be restricted to working with someone in a crisis, when half the time in our regular lives, we feel like we're in a crisis anyways?" 

So -- and I gotta tell you something -- you think negotiating a prison siege is tough! Maybe you oughtta try family dinner around the holidays. [HOWARD: Yeah, especially these days!] From my early days, they told me to go volunteer on a suicide hotline before I could become a hostage negotiator, which was the best training I ever got. That was back in the early 90s, and from those days forward, I was always looking for the parallels. Even with my significant other, or with my kids, this stuff is too good to [withhold it] from the people who are important to you. 

HOWARD: So the Harvard negotiation model was a very cognitive model, and it focused on positions and interests, and it revolves around getting everybody to a place of "win-win". And you discovered that as good as it sounded, it had some holes in it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CHRIS: [The big shortcoming of that model is,] we're not logical, we're not rational. I wish we were. When I first started teaching -- I went through Harvard, then taught at Harvard -- 2007 -- and then started teaching in a business school -- teaching the part-time MBA students. And when they're part time, that means, they've got a real job during the day and they're not that interested in the purely academic stuff. They want to solve real problems. 

I used to have to try to pitch the idea that we're emotional. The idea that emotional intelligence can be a prized commodity in the business world, has just recently been accepted. And still only grudgingly so. People don't want to use emotional intelligence. The old rule was, "Let's all be rational about this. Let's come to a wise agreement here." 

Like, my Harvard brothers and sisters, they always had a two-step process -- like, first, let's talk about HOW we're going to negotiate, and once we agree on HOW we're going to negotiate, then we'll go ahead and negotiate. And that's complete nonsense! I would sit there and be like Fine, we can talk about that all day long. But I'm going to do what I'm going to do, no matter what you say. 

I think that's how win-win negotiators get into trouble. They want permission to negotiate, when instead, you should use emotional intelligence in your interactions, whether or not the other side grants you permission to do so. I just think you should use emotional intelligence, period. Because it makes for better relationships, and you shouldn't need permission to have better relationships. You shouldn't need permission to brighten somebody's day up a little bit. I'm the kind of person who's like, "Hey, I'm going to brighten your day up whether you like it or not!"

HOWARD: Plus, nobody ever asks permission to make people miserable! So why would you do ask permission to empathize?!

CHRIS: There y'go! Right? We seem to feel free to do that. 

When you were talking about your airline negotiation the other day, how you walked up to that clerk -- you just made her day better by what you said. I mean -- even if you hadn't gotten anywhere with her [in the negotiation] -- you still made a positive deposit in the Karma Bank of the Universe. You made the Universe a slightly better place. And if you personally get anything else out of it, so much the better! I think, the more we do that with each other every day, the better off we all are. 

HOWARD: I like the fact that you said that! Because first of all, it makes me feel like, you know, the next time I'm at an airport and I don't even need anything, why wouldn't I do something like that anyways? Why do I need to wait until I need something from someone else? So, it doesn't have to feel manipulative and tactical, but just the way I go through the world, can be about making positive deposits in the Karma Bank of the Universe. 

CHRIS: Yeah. That's a great point. The guy I consider to be a spiritual advisor, a spiritual mentor -- who happens to be a Protestant minister in New York City -- he had a thing he called the Lift Game. He just wanted to go through the day, wondering how many people can I lift up today? Interestingly enough, he was actually a student of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. And Arthur taught me and my son the Lift Game -- just say something nice to someone and keep moving. And consequently, you're a happier person as a result. It's a mercenary way to make yourself happier. 

HOWARD: I love that. So -- when you discovered these emotional intelligence components to negotiation. Give us a sense of what that looks like, as opposed to the hyper-rational, "Let's discuss how we're going to discuss the matter. Let's make wise agreements and look for the zone of agreement and the [acronym] BATNA and all that." 

Like, what does it look like to approach a negotiation instead of from a place of emotional intelligence. You mentioned a "cold read" and you've used the word empathy several times. So what does that look like?

CHRIS: It's kind of an approach of being a little proactive. We don't gotta be geniuses to have a pretty good feel walking into a situation, of what it is now, and what it's getting ready to be. So if I've got something to say to you that I think you're going to react negatively to, I'll start off by saying, "You're not going to like this." As opposed to, you know, approaching it like "I don't want you to be unhappy." There's only a two millimeter difference between denial and observation. The brain science actually backs this up. 

If you observe a negative emotion, you diminish the magnitude of the negativity. You're not denying it. You're not saying, "I don't want you to think I'm being a jerk here" and you're not saying, "I don't want you to think I'm being too demanding." That's a denial and that makes it worse. But if you say, "Look, this is going to sound demanding, I'm going to sound like a jerk here." That dials [the negative impact] down immediately. 

HOWARD: It's so counterintuitive to lead that way, because all I want to do as an accommodator, is to make those differences disappear. I just want us to merge into one. So if I'm going to negotiate with my spouse about the food rules of the kitchen -- about what goes in the fridge, what goes on the shelf and all that -- I'm tempted to make it in my mind like, "This is going to be great for you too, so let's not even think of this as a difference [between your interests and mine]". But what you're saying is for me to really step in and acknowledge the negative impact I'm about to have, and to put a spotlight front and center, on the negative [of what you're proposing] from the other person's perspective. 

CHRIS: Right. And what the other person feels in response, is this tremendous amount of appreciation. It's so counterintuitive to us [to bring up the negative], but to them, it feel awesome. I mean, I was just going back through, because I have students in a class who write papers on their experiences in the real world applying these skills. I was looking at one interaction a student wrote about. It took place between a husband and wife the other day. The husband wants to talk to his wife about buying a house that he knows is the type of house that she's already expressed that she doesn't want. But he feels that it's a great step forward, it's a good way to get started. And he says, "Honey, I've got something to talk to you about, and I know it's going to seem like I never pay attention to you and I don't listen to you and I don't appreciate what you want." 

He had also said, "I also know that I'm going to seem like a jerk here." Well, she stopped in her tracks and said, "You know, I actually don't think that you don't appreciate what I want, or that you don't pay attention to what I say". And then he laughed and he said back to her, "Oh, so I AM a jerk!" And then they both laughed, but he got her attention in a way where she was really dialed into the fact that he respected how she was feeling about things. And from there, they got through it really quickly, and she felt respected and appreciated. 

There's another one that I just thought of, too.  Two friends of mine, who are both extremely successful executives in Silicon Valley -- they're engaged to be married -- the woman says to her fiancee one day -- she said, "What's going on with you? I really like talking to you these days. Why do I like talking to you so much lately?" 

And he said, "Well, I've been taking this negotiation course and they're making me actually use what they're teaching me, in my real life." And she said, "This is awesome! What's the course? What're you learning?" And he said, "Well, it's this book Never Split the Difference" So she bought six copies for each of her girlfriends' husbands and boyfriends. 'Cause she said, "I like talking to him all of a sudden -- he's not always trying to solve my problems. He appreciates how I feel. I love it."  It's kind of crazy. 

HOWARD: I love how when I have something that I want to bring up that I know is going to be potentially conflictual and unpleasant -- but I'm trying to hide it -- I really do a shitty job of hiding it. So it comes across [anyways]. And then my wife's like, "OK, what did I do wrong?!?" She senses, "he's going to be angry at me" -- like, the energy of me coming and saying, "Hey can I talk to you about something?" -- I think almost everyone hears that as "You need to go the Principal's office. You've been bad."

CHRIS: That really is a loaded question -- "Can I talk to you about something?" It's like, "Proceed at your peril". It's like, "Oh I usually like talking to you, but whoah, I KNOW I don't want to talk to you about this."

HOWARD: Right. So to step in, and to take ownership of my negative contribution -- that puts her in the driver's seat -- she gets to either absolve me or say, "Yeah, I DO feel that way sometimes" -- I feel like it breaks the ice. 

CHRIS: And the mere act of someone saying, "Yeah, I do feel that way sometimes" -- again, the brain science shows us, in that moment, the emotion of negativity dials down. The recognition of a negative emotion by another person, always dials it down. Always, always, always. I've watched the brain -- electronically -- they know that the negative emotions are amplified in the brain. We also know now that there's basically three times the real estate in the brain, to amplify negative emotions, which is why basically negatives have three times the negative impact in our lives -- three to nine times the impact [compared to positives]. So to know that recognition of a negative [by another person] dials it down each and every time -- it's counterintuitive, but it's a powerful thing. 

HOWARD: When we're on the receiving end of it, it makes total sense. And yet, it's crazy how counterintuitive it feels to say something that feels so good when it's said to us. 

CHRIS: Yeah. If it gets said to us, it feels really good. And yet we don't make that connection, because we're afraid to.

HOWARD: So if you want to begin a negotiation, then you can start with this proactivity. "You're not going to like this." Or as the man in the couple did it [in your example], he's acknowledging some potential negative thoughts. What's the next thing you would have people do as they enter into a negotiation?

CHRIS: Once you say that, you've gotta go silent. You've got to let it sink in. There's something called the effective pause. You've gotta to let this stuff sink in. A lot of people are horrified at that concept in and of itself. Some people really struggle with silence, especially those that signal their own anger with silence. Like "to give the silent treatment". 

And so their problem is, they misinterpret their going silent, as "OK, this person's going to think I'm angry". But having said something that's really important, you've GOTTA let it sink in. So, you're not signaling anger in this context, with silence. You're giving the person a lot of appreciation. You're letting them react. 

You're actually letting the brain trigger specific chemicals and letting those chemicals work through the system -- the serotonin, dopamine, and a variety of things like that. That's good for us. You're letting that stuff have its impact and sink in. And so then, you let the other person respond. They're going to want to know what's on your mind? You can then sort of express a goal.

And in all negotiations, the secret to getting the upper hand, or the secret to getting a collaborative relationship is really letting the other side have some control also. You ask a How or a What question. Like, "What do you want to do?" Like, "Honey, I know this seems really selfish of me, and you really love watching TV and you feel like this is our time together. And at the same time, I'm struggling with you know -- eating better -- or sleeping better -- I want to construct an opportunity . . . " -- you know, that's where you tell them about what it is that's your goal.

So you lay out your goal and then say, "You know, what do you want me to do? How do you want me to deal with this?" Invite the other person into the collaboration so that they feel a part of it, they feel engaged in the outcome. Then whatever you're working for -- as soon as they're invited in with the What or the How question -- now it's part of them too. Especially because with your significant other, this is a joint endeavor anyways. 

So you want them to feel ownership in the positive nature of the outcome. And it's more likely that it's going to happen as a result, now that they've gotten ownership as well. They're going to be part of the implementation. Who knows -- they may even -- it gives you the opportunity to get a Black Swan out of it. Maybe it's something they want, or maybe they have a better idea. A significant enough period of time, the other person has something to contribute that's going to make [the outcome] even better [than the outcome you originally were going to ask for], so now this is a double win. 

HOWARD: What do you mean by a Black Swan, by people who haven't read your book?

CHRIS: It's a piece of information that changes everything. Typically it's a positive, like, "I want that too!" Or sometimes it's a negative that you didn't know about, so now you can navigate [better]. Because if there's a negative that you're unaware of, well, that's like a landmine that you're going to step on. And you just didn't know where those landmines are. 

And then of course, [you want to have] flexibility in what you're after. There's a great husband-wife negotiation over a Christmas tree, that I talk about in my book, because it's one of my favorite negotiations. The husband wants an artificial tree. The wife wants a real tree. And he can't figure out why she won't accept his logic. I mean, "Logic?!? There is no logic [in matters like this]!", but he's got all this logic. And she's just like, "don't wanna hear it, don't wanna hear it" -- she's just shutting down on him. 

So he think's he's going to defuse this by saying, "Well, it seems like you must've had real trees growing up", which is an application of a tool we call a label. A label is just an observation. "It seems like". "It sounds like." Just observing in this way is ridiculously powerful -- it's a stealth weapon. 

And she goes, "YES!" She goes, "I have all these great memories of the holidays with my brothers and sisters, and the smell of a real Christmas tree. And those memories are so strong in my mind that every time I smell a real tree, I think about how wonderful the holidays were with my family. And I want our kids to have those same memories." And he's like -- BAM -- "OK, we're getting a real tree."

HOWARD: So sometimes when you're negotiating with family, you can win by losing. It's not the same thing as at the car dealership, where they convince you to pay $36K instead of $30K. With family, if someone else has a better representation of reality, it's fine to "lose". 

CHRIS: Yeah. Or their win is better than your win. And I teach people to never be so sure of what you want, that you wouldn't take something better. I mean, if you get your ego all rigidly invested in your solution, the chances are actually probably 90%, that there's a better outcome to be had, that you're going to completely miss because you're so sure you're right.

HOWARD: So, I'd like to slow down and go back to this idea of labels, because it's so powerful. And it's really an idea that's not intuitive for most people to do. Can you maybe talk us through what is a label, what is it for, and how do you use it?

CHRIS: Yeah, all right. So it's a really simplistic design, but it's a very specific design. You use the phrases, "it seems like", "it sounds like","it looks like". You might also say, "It seems", "it sounds", "it looks". 

In the case, the husband ends up saying, "It seems like you had real trees growing up." So, it's an observation. It's an innocent observation. And I'm contrasting with what some people are taught to say, which is "What I'm hearing is" -- and that's the wrong way to do it. That leans you in a wrong direction. As soon as you use the word "I", as in "What I"m hearing" -- then you're communicating to the other person that you're more interested in your own perception than in them. 

"I" is a word that signals self-centering, self-absorbance. It's not necessarily wrong, but this is not the right context for it. You want to use the word "I" in another context, but not in this one. So -- [stick with the words] it seems, it sounds, it looks. 

Now what happens when you say that to someone is, you trigger a specific interaction in the brain. Your observation goes into the other person's brain and it hits the prefrontal cortex, the CEO of the brain. The brain is like this great team that works together and interacts. In the brain, you've got a CEO, and then you've got your emotional system, which is called the limbic system. 

The limbic system always listens. The limbic system is active when you're asleep. You can effectively shut down your emotions -- your limbic system -- about as effectively as you can shut down your breathing. Like you could say, "Yeah, I can hold my breath." Well, sure you can, for about a minute. 

So what happens when you say, It seems, It sounds, It looks, is that the prefrontal cortex hollers back at the limbic system and says, "Hey! Does it seem like this to us too?" And it triggers a contemplative moment inside. A contemplative moment -- that's the thing that helps you either dial down the negatives or dial up the positives. 
A friend of mine once said to me, "It sounds like your family's really close." I had been talking about my family. I remember a literal physical rush -- I suddenly felt so good when he said that. Because it drew together everything I had been telling him in describing my family. Now I know from the brain science that he punched a portion of my amygdala that released serotonin and dopamine into my system. Which is why I felt so good. 

Or when you label a negative, there's a different response where the negatives dial down and people gain strength. They get stronger. That's why when the husband said, "It seems like you had real trees growing up" and she responded "YES", it was because he had hit that portion of the brain that triggered the memory and actually released serotonin and dopamine into her system and made her feel better. So it's a very specific design -- it seems, it sounds, it looks -- you seem, you sound, you look -- because that maximizes the contemplative reaction in another person's brain.

HOWARD: One thing that occurs to me about that is that when you do give someone a dopamine rush, you're giving them a gift and so it amazes me how much people will open up and  talk after that. You'll have a conversation like that, and all you did is apply those simple labels, [and then] the other person then talks the whole time. And they walk away going, "My gosh, you're the greatest conversationalist ever." Right? Because they just want to share. What about these observations is so powerful that then people will tell you all this stuff?

CHRIS: I don't know, but I have people say that to me all the time. People [when they use these techniques] keep telling me, "I never had conversations that were like this before. People are opening up in ways that I had never imagined." And the quality of their conversations, and the overall quality of their life, just goes up in a crazy way. [It takes away] these negative barriers that stop us from talking, stop us from sharing. Because you know, normally people tend to say, "I don't want you to feel that way." Like, "I don't want you to think that" And for someone to say to us, "I don't want you to feel that, I don't want you to think that" -- what they're actually doing is creating these barriers around what they don't want to hear. 

When a person says, "I don't want you to feel that way", what the other person says to themselves inside is, "OK, this is [a signal] not to talk to this person. This is a lesson that I just learned -- don't talk to this person about this stuff, because I'm just going to hit a barrier here." And that's kind of why people don't open up or [at least] don't open up effectively. 

And here's another crazy thing. When I was on the crisis hotline -- I don't know what you think when you picture you're going to volunteer on a suicide hotline -- but I think you imagine that you're going to be on the phone with someone who's suicidal for hours. And they limited us to 20 minutes. 

And I remember thinking "Twenty minutes!? Are you outta your mind?!?" Well, in fact it IS [enough] once you get people talking. You're not there for hours. You have three to seventeen minutes of quality conversation, instead of having someone bend your ear for six hours, 'cause you're not listening. 

HOWARD: So one of the things that surprised me the most about the advice in your book, is to make a label, even if it's wrong. I always felt like it's risky to do that because it seems like, well, what if I say 'it seems like you're angry' but I'm wrong?" Or 'It seems like you had fresh trees as a kid" and I'm wrong? That feels like I've just created this huge disconnect. And you advise just the opposite -- that sometimes a wrong label is the best thing you can do. Can you explain that?

CHRIS: That was the cool thing about the laboratory that was the classes I was teaching. Because sometimes people would discover something by accident. It never occurred to us how effective a mis-label would be. But it's so insanely effective. People go, "No it's not that -- this is what it is." People love to correct! 

The label feels very interactive, so that you're open to it. In business deals, some guys intentionally mislabel. Like, typical real estate transaction where we first saw this. Talking to a broker -- if the buyer would've said, "Why's this seller selling?", the broker would've come up with some nonsense. But the buyer used a label and says, "it seems like this seller's selling because he doesn't believe in market fundamentals." And the broker went "No, no, he actually has a couple of other properties that are under financial pressure, so he needs [to quickly raise] some money." And that was a quick, blurting out of information after the word no. 

People feel protected when they say no. They're far more likely to then throw a bunch more information out there than before. And it happens all the time. So triggering a no with a mislabel is a great skill.

HOWARD: And especially, maybe doing that with people you know well, like family members. I had in my notes to ask you -- Can black swans occur between spouses? And black swan is the name of your consulting practice too -- Black Swan Consulting Group. So obviously it's very important to you. But I was thinking, sure, with a real estate deal, or between two business partners, there's a lot that they're trying to hide from each other. But is that also true within intimate relationship? It seems like a stupid question, but are there things that these two people are trying to hide from each other?

CHRIS: Yes -- things they're trying to hide, or just afraid to admit because they're scared of the other person's reaction. It's not just between spouses -- it happens between brothers and sisters too. My older sister is someone -- I always looked up to my older sister, especially in high school. She dated a guy on the football team, she was a member of the homecoming court, and I was just like "Wow!" I so admired her -- I looked up to her so much. 

And even just a couple years ago -- I mean, I don't know of a human being who was NOT unhappy during high school, because those hormones are just raging through our bodies. But I remember saying to her [a couple years ago] how I was unhappy my last couple of years in high school. And this shocked look came across her face, and she talked about [also being unhappy during her high school years] -- I perceived that she was deliriously happy, from how great it all looked on the outside. And I think that she perceived that I was all happy-go-lucky. 

So it's funny -- between brothers and sisters, after all these years, we still had these misconceptions of the other person. And it wasn't like we were nefariously hiding the information from the other person -- we were afraid to admit it. And I think that's the biggest thing with spouses too. Maybe there are a few nefarious things that people are hiding, but by and large, we're afraid to admit our vulnerabilities. So yeah, in negotiations, black swans with spouses happen a lot -- there's tons of them there. 

HOWARD: And it seems like beyond that specific negotiation -- if you can develop a relationship with your spouse -- with your family -- in which they're unafraid to admit vulnerabilities to you -- well, THAT feels like a really beautiful, graceful relationship. 

CHRIS: Yeah. Exactly. And when you get to a point that you're unafraid to admit vulnerabilities, then the counterintuitive thing is, the other person actually sees you as more fearless. It's not whether you have fears -- it's whether or not you can approach things fearlessly. And it really builds esteem in somebody else to admit to them "Yeah, I'm scared to death every single day." That sort of admission -- the admission and the way that you say it -- the person thinks, "Wow, he seems pretty fearless but he feels fear." And the brain, this circuitry that we ave in our head is some crazy stuff, isn't it?

HOWARD: So I'm imagining some people listening to this are thinking, This is great process -- but they still fear the outcome is going to be NO. That their spouse that they're negotiating with about what they're going to eat, or how often they're going to go out to a restaurant -- that they're still going to say NO. And you have a chapter in Never Split the Difference, called "Beware Yes, and Master No".  Can you talk about why we should not fear when we put out our gambit and then they say "No, I don't want to do that"?

CHRIS: Well, it's never no by itself. It's always "NO . . AND. . ." And the real value is where the AND is. So you see your conversation as the no being only confined to one small piece, and then you [focus on] the AND. You know -- "AND here are the other considerations. AND here's the rest of the thinking." So the no is not a rejection of you. 

The no becomes [shows you] a course of action that won't work, [which is] a way to narrow [the options] down. So that NO just becomes another [useful piece of] a collaborative conversation. So the NO doesn't [feel like] a personal rejection. 

And the other thing too, is what happens with someone WHEN they say no. There's "what happens when we hear no" and "what happens when we say no". When we say no, we feel protected. There's not a parent out there [who doesn't understand this]. My son is my Director of Operations now, But when he was 17, the words, "Dad, can I..." were always met with a "NO!" [laughs] before he had even finished his question. 

But I can remember nearly every time, that after saying no, I would go, "What was it again that you wanted?" Because since I already said no, I felt protected and I was then willing to listen. And he came to learn that after I said no, was actually his best chance to make his case for something. So he wasn't afraid of no! And kids generally aren't. Our kids learn that after a parent has said no, there's a real chance -- "Well, now I can make my case and they're going to be more open than before they said no." Because people feel protected once they've said the word NO.

HOWARD: I love that. So like, when we hear the word no, our brains do something -- so here's a case where -- in Daniel Kahneman's lingo around System Two and System One -- in System One, the limbic system might feel bad. But we can override that with this knowledge that their no is something we should expect. And actually welcome as a step to -- because if they didn't have that No, we wouldn't even need to have the conversation. Right?

CHRIS: Yeah. A NO should be a welcome step. The way I look at it is, if you were going to carve a statue out of stone, you get rid of what doesn't work, and you're left with something beautiful. So your NO's help you get rid of what doesn't work. And maybe you can sculpt a great interaction as a result.

HOWARD: One thing we haven't talked about which seems incredibly powerful -- and I have to admit, I have not yet had the guts to do it -- at least consciously! -- is mirroring. Can you talk about that? Because it feels So. Damn. Manipulative. And I'm always sure I'm going to get caught! In the book, you tell a story about a situation where there's mirroring being done to you and you don't notice it -- but I as the listener to the audiobook -- I heard it right away. Which reinforces this idea in my mind that EVERYONE can spot it. Can you talk about what mirroring is, why it's so powerful and how it can be used effectively?

CHRIS: Yeah, it feels ridiculously awkward but nobody spots it. Mirroring is saying the last two to three words of what somebody has just said. And then after that, when you get really good at it, you pick out one to three select words. And it's word for word. 

I had a colleague of mine who loved to argue concepts -- and we were talking late one night, and he said, "You know, I don't think this mirroring stuff works. I don't see how it could be possible to get somebody talking by just repeating the last two or three words." And I said, "The last three words???" And  he said, "Yeah, I just don't think that's how it works." And then he goes, "HEY! You just [tricked] me." 

And yeah, it's just this unconscious reaction -- when you mirror people, they continue talking. People just love it. Some people when they're struggling with [expressing themselves], I know that what they need is more mirroring, because it gains space. It helps create this space between yes and no. It gains space in the negotiation. 

I'll tell a student of mine, "Tomorrow is Mirror Day. Don't worry about anything else. I just want you to mirror everybody that you talk to. The entire day." I say, "Just don't worry about anything else tomorrow. Just mirror people." And they get to the end of the day and they are like, "WOW. It was crazy! Everybody loved talking to me today."  

I actually had a circumstance where two of my students at USC -- two women I'm coaching -- one of them comes up to me and says, "I need help with this".  So I said to her, "I want tomorrow to be Mirror Day. As a matter of fact, I just put one of your fellow students through this today -- Raphaella -- that's what I had her doing today." 

And she said, 'WHAT!? Raphaella's a good friend of mine, and I had a bunch of wonderful conversations with her today. I didn't know that's what she was doing." She said, "I fell into this today?!? Raphaella and I had some of the most delightful conversations today, and that's what she was doing to me?" And now this student's doing it tomorrow, because she's had it done to her today. 

But it makes people who are doing it -- until they realize how effective it is -- you feel like the other person's going to burst into flames the first time you try it on them. Or like they're going to stare at you. But it's insanely effective! It's the closest thing to a Jedi mind trick of all the things that my company and I teach. It leads to really great conversations. 

HOWARD: Can you give us an example of where in a negotiation, that somebody might think of using mirroring? Where's its tactical value? 

CHRIS: Sure. The practical value is, it gets the other person to expand on what they've just said. So number one, if you don't really understand what they're saying, this'll get them to re-word it. And by mirroring specific words, what you're really communicating to the person is, "I heard the words that you've just said, so you don't need to repeat them verbatim." 

This [reminds me of] an American overseas who keeps saying the same thing, in the exact same words, only louder. Well -- you don't get that response when you mirror, because you just confirmed you heard the words. So part of the interaction is, the brain is going, "Oh! I need to use different words." And so the other person expands. 

There's a business executive who's a ridiculously smart guy -- he mirrors the other side's position in every single negotiation. Because it tells him whether or not there's any softness or latitude in their position, by virtue of how they respond to the mirror. He does it so much that [before] he goes into negotiations, he'll get his colleagues who are going to be there in the negotiation with him -- he'll say to them, "Watch what I do. I'm going to mirror their positions. I'm going to repeat -- throughout this conversation -- I'm going to repeat the last one to three words that they say. I'm going to do it over and over and over. They're never going to see it, and they're always going to expand." 

This guy's a big showoff and he loves telling people he's going to do this. And the first time he said this to his colleagues, they kind of dismissed him, like, "Yeah. OK. Sure. Fine." And then they'd walk into the negotiations, and every time he'd mirror, he'd kind of sneak a look at one of his colleagues, to kinda say "See? I told you so". So he uses it as his strongest bargaining tool, because when the other side in a negotiation takes a position, you need to know whether it's solid, or whether they're bluffing or puffing. The mirror tool is probably the single best way to quickly smoke out when someone's puffing, meaning they're talking about a bunch of things they don't really want. 

HOWARD: So in a family negotiation, the mirror would be used when you're not getting what you want yet? And you don't quite understand what's standing in the way?

CHRIS: Yeah. And a family negotiation is going to get the other person to go on. If they're talking to you at all, they WANT you to understand. They're just worried as to whether you're actually going to listen. So [when you mirror], it displays a certain amount of listening and also openness to even more listening. Which then increases the chances that the other side is going to feel comfortable going on,and tell you more. So in family negotiations -- non-price negotiations, if you will -- where there's so much more at stake -- it's particularly effective, because in family negotiations, we've got a long history of not listening to each other and not being open to listening. The other side really is kind of wanting to hear [that you'll listen], but they're just afraid you're going to shut them down again. 

HOWARD: That's amazing. So I have one more question, and this comes from my son. Both of my kids were very excited when I told them I was going to interview you. I made them both listen to the audiobook, and they've both used the techniques and have come back and told me how amazing they were. My son wanted to know -- do you or can you use this on yourself? Can you negotiate with yourself? Because the biggest problem people have with exercising, eating right, doing all those things, is that there's some voice in their own head that says, "Yeah, but I'd rather eat this piece of crap" or "I'd rather sit on the couch" -- is this stuff applicable solo?

CHRIS: Yeah, it is. It is. And there's little tweaks -- like -- you can talk to yourself -- if you actually say to yourself, "You can do this" -- exactly like that -- it's far more effective than saying even "I can do this". 

HOWARD: Why is that?

CHRIS: It's received a little more like you're being coached by someone who's on your side, as opposed to you just talking to yourself. There's a difference in the way the brain reacts to the words "I" versus way the brain reacts to the word "you". The word 'you' is a much more engaging word, than the word 'I" is. So it feels far more collaborative. It feels far more supportive. When you say to yourself, "You can do this. You got this.", it's more effective than when you say, "I can do this. I've got this."

HOWARD: It's almost as if the brain hears that voice as coming from a stranger. Like what you said earlier about the phrase, "What I'm hear is". -- how that phrase sounds self-centered, from someone else."

CHRIS: Yeah. So you can coach yourself -- you just need that one tweak in order to make it work.

HOWARD: Do you have suggestions for when you hear a NO from yourself?

CHRIS: Then you'd say, "OK, you really don't like that idea. So how do we make this work?"

HOWARD: So literally what you would say when you're negotiating with someone else.

CHRIS: Yes. And if feels more supportive to yourself. It feels like you're not alone.

HOWARD: Wow. This is SOOOO different. This feels really profound to me. Because the way most people talk to themselves is kind of negative. It's like they try to plug their ears and say "La-la-la-la" [covering over the other person's voice with a noise so you can't hear their words]. Like, they think, "I have to overcome [the things I'm saying to myself] and I have to dominate them."

CHRIS: Yeah, very much so, when in fact, we can coach ourselves the very same way we would be coaching someone else. And we feel stronger as a result by being on our own side. 

HOWARD: Wow. So I have to tell you, I've been inspired by this conversation. Like I say, I've read the book, I've listened to the audiobook -- I actually listened to it three times while training for a marathon. And of course, not practicing the techniques [very often] means I've got a certain amount of chops, but it's still highly theoretical. 

I am publicly committing to going and taking one of your courses. Because I have a feeling it's going to become a foundational element in my own coaching. Like, the Never Split The Difference method is going to be something that -- not having it at my fingertips is something that's keeping me from being as good a health coach as I can be. And so I'd like to offer other people the same opportunity. How can people find out more about you, about your services and about your courses?

CHRIS: The quickest and simplest way to keep up to speed on a weekly basis, is, we put out a weekly negotiation advisory newsletter. It's complimentary -- it's completely free. I had a friend who used to say, "Well, if it's free, I'll take three." [laughs] So the easiest way is to text the words, "thatsright" -- just like that, no punctuation, no spaces -- to 22828. That'll sign you up quick and easy. The website is, and we've got other training sessions, but we just did a one-day training for anyone who wanted to show up in Los Angeles, and we've got more coming up, and we tell you about those in the newsletter. We tell you where you can get the best price on the book -- Amazon, as usual!  But the quickest way to stay up to speed on everything we're doing, is to subscribe to the newsletter. 

HOWARD: And I am signed up already. And I get a lot of newsletters, and honestly, there are very few of them that I read. There are some that I don't read at all, there are others I put into a folder, but yours I read right away, because it's weird, it's like serendipity. It's like, when I read one of your articles -- that day, I always find an opportunity to use that particular technique. It's a short newsletter, and it's useful and to the point.  And entertaining. So I definitely recommend that to everyone. Even if you can't afford the book yet, the newsletter will empower you. 

CHRIS: Yeah, it's awesome. And like you said, we try to make it concise and short, so that if you have an opportunity to use it that day, you can. 

HOWARD: Well, Chris Voss, it's such an honor. I really look forward to meeting you in person at one of your courses. I am committed to doing that, to bettering myself. And I want to thank you for all the work you're doing and for taking the time to talk today. 

CHRIS: I'm looking forward to meeting you in person. Thank you for having me on. 

HOWARD: OK.  Take care!  

Download the PDF transcript here (courtesy of Traci Scharf)

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