What I Learned From An FBI Hostage Negotiator

The man, the myth, the legend, Chris Voss was on the Negotiations Ninja Podcast recently. Yes, the same Chris Voss that was once the lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI and the author of the amazing book, Never Split the Difference. ​

There’s probably no one else you’d rather have negotiating to get you out of hostage situation than Chis Voss (except maybe Herb Cohen). I’m a Chris Voss fan and love his no nonsense approach to writing about negotiation. It’s direct and to say it doesn’t beat around the bush would be an understatement.

We got to speaking about splitting the difference and he reinforced what I already believed to be true. Which is that splitting the difference is a terrible idea! And yet everyone does it. It’s so pervasive and widespread.

Why?

Splitting the difference is likely so popular because it seems fair.

The funny thing about the word ‘fair’ is that it appears to mean different things to different people. By splitting the difference, usually both parties lose. You see, both parties are forced to concede something when splitting the difference.

This is usually because many negotiators are lazy. Yes, splitting the difference is lazy.

I’m probably going to get some angry emails over that statement. But it’s too late now. I said it. No takesies backsies. When you split the difference, you’re saying, “I’m too lazy to find something that’s mutually beneficial here.”

Remember that famous negotiation story where two people argue over an egg?

No?

Just me?

Okay, well it goes like this:

Two people are arguing over who gets an egg. Eventually, both parties agree to ‘split the difference’ and each gets half an egg. The issue is that both parties needed the whole egg to meet their needs. They’ve both had to concede 50% of the egg to be ‘fair’ but neither really got what they needed.

But to get what they needed they would have had to have asked each other whythey need the egg (to understand the interests of the other party) before they split the difference. If they did, they would have found that the one party needed the egg to make a special medicine. But for that medicine, they only needed the shell. They also would have found that the other party needed the egg for a recipe, but they only need the inside of the egg (not the shell).

“Okay, I think I get it, but what if I don’t work with eggs?!?”

Okay, here’s another example: Chris is a sales person in a construction company that makes concrete forms for oil and gas producers. Chris is a decent sales guy and gets about $300K for a sale of one concrete form. Recently Chris submitted a proposal in response to an RFP for a small oil an gas producer.

It was a good proposal and Chris made it to the negotiating table with the buyer. The buyer told Chris that he needed to “sharpen his pencil”, as he only had $150K to spend. Chris was shocked and not happy. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to close. He couldn’t sell the concrete form for that low. He tried everything to bring up the buyer’s offer. The buyer didn’t go for it and was getting frustrated. This confused Chris. This customer had been reasonable in the past. Why was he getting so frustrated? Finally, after trying everything, and just before he asked the buyer whether he’s be willing to split the difference, Chris asked, “Why $150K? What makes that number so special?”

“I only have $150K left in this year’s budget.”, responded the buyer.

[INSERT LIGHT BULB MOMENT HERE]

The buyer’s issue wasn’t the price!!! It was that year’s budget!!! The buyer’s position was that he could only pay $150K. But, his interest, showed that $150K was all he was could pay in that budget cycle.

With this information, Chris split the payment of the concrete form over 2 budget cycles. He was able to save the deal without conceding what was almost a SIGNIFICANT amount of money. And ultimately the buyer won because he was able to get what he wanted and to split the cost over 2 budget cycles. And no one split the difference.

What’s the moral of the story? Put in the work and the effort and dig to find out what the interests of the other party are. Don’t just settle for the lazy approach of splitting the difference.