📖 Never Split The Difference: the art of contextual questioning with respect and empathy.

A great book to become a better human being

📖 Never Split The Difference: the art of contextual questioning with respect and empathy.
Never Split the difference by Chris Voss & Tahl Raz (book cover)

It can seems ironical or even sarcastic to review such a book on a blog about optimism and product management. This is not the case: everyone can become a better human being with this book.

If you practice, the key outcome of this book will be a more deliberate practice of saying no with empathy. A key skill to reflect on your life and to cultivate happiness.

A key takeaway for me was the fact that empathizing does not mean agreeing with others (the counterpart). Lots of people are afraid to empathize because they believe it will weaken their resolution. For men, empathy is often associated with weakness. Male peers often discourage you to cry in public if you are man. As a consequence, pals tend to avoid sharing emotions and their impacts. This social pressure reflect more often than not the old paradigm of the alpha male.

Of course empathizing with others can make you change your mind. And this is a good thing! Leading an examined life requires you to deal with others feeling. If your motivations, values and goals in life are clear, empathy can not weaken you. Empathy reinforces you because you understand others more completely. You can now impact their lives: empathy is the essence of leadership.

This book surprised me a lot. Blame the movies and Hollywood but I was not expecting this approach from an FBI expert. M. Voss and Plato shared a lot of commonalities!

This book is all about “the art of contextual questioning with respect and empathy”. This would be my proposed subtitle.

Research (before the negotiation) is key. Know your counterpart, do your research and come informed. Always keep an open mind. You have to look for for unknown unknowns (Black Swan): remain agile, flexible and nimble. You have to decipher what your counter part said, how he said it and what remains unsaid. Mirror your counterpart and ask questions with empathy. Label the emotions and state of mind of your counterpart.

Yes is not the goal. In fact, most of the book is about how to say no without hurting your counterpart. Empathy is key but you need other tools. You can only influence your counterpart once he is convinced that you understand her/him. The key is to get a “That’s right”, not “You’re right”. This will create a great outcome for both of you.

The alternative is almost always a pure negative outcome for both parties.

Of course, you will also get a chapter on haggling. This makes sense part of a negotiating book. I took it as a great way to practice for low stakes interactions.

I also loved the fact that the book expand the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). The author recommend to use a scenario-based approach. From ideal (ego flattering) to worse case scenario.

This technique is not in the book but I always imagine more than three scenarios:

You alphabet scenario … (image by Burst)
  • A: The ideal scenario (very ego flattering)
  • B: depend on the situation
  • C: …
  • D: Best alternative to negotiated agreement (BATNA)
  • E: …
  • Z: Immediate death or debilitating disease. None of this matter anymore…

This scenario approach is key to not get distracted and to not become overwhelmed by emotions. Plan Z allows you to keep your goals and perspective in plain sight. This is true even if your counterpart is hurting your feelings and if you have to completely forget plan A.

Negotiating is about active listening, framing, patience, empathy and questioning with respect (mirroring). This is an art and not pure science.

It has a wider scope than hostage negotiation. If you apply the proposed strategies you will become a better human being.

  1. You will be honest about what you feel. This includes some irrational fear like being afraid to “lose”. Or the greatest fear of our time: the fear of missing out.
  2. You will understand other human beings better.
  3. You will prove to your counterpart that you understand her/him better.
  4. Plan Z will help you hold your emotional ground: your emotions will not dictate your actions anymore.
  5. You will remain flexible, fluid and agile. Life is change and, to be honest, you don’t know a lot about others and the situations.
  6. Always looking for black swans will keep you balanced, honest, curious and eager to learn.

What this book is not

This book is not about hostage negotiation. The author has a tremendous experience about high stakes / explosive and changing situations. The author then distills errors and success to provide strong communication principles. You can apply these principle each time you want to influence someone. This can be your next pay raise, promotions or to help your son brush his teeth.

What this book is

This is a book about radical honesty: yourself, others, what you know and don’t know you don’t know. It proposes a radical communication toolkit to improve the world. It only works if your goals and objectives are noble: anything else is pure manipulation.

This is a recommended read to anyone who want to become:

  • a better communicator
  • a positive influencer (leader)
  • more respectful of others ideas and feelings


This is a great book that is easy to read. Each chapter has a real-life story from the author or one of his student. As you read through chapters you will experience the negotiation process step by step. At the end of each chapter the author summarized the key takeaways.

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