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Some time ago in a complex corporate setting, I made the CEO of a large company quite angry and now he had me come in his office where he was yelling at me. Yelling. He had another leader there supporting him, adding to the pressure. I don’t handle that kind of pressure and intimidation well. Had I not been prepared for this moment, courtesy of a valuable new book I had just completed, the outcome would have been easy to predict: As a peon with very little power, I would have been terrified, intimidated, and would quickly look for ways to make concessions and stop the conflict. He would have won and some people I care about would have lost, but the loss, though unpleasant, would have seemed fair and unavoidable to me. After all, what else could I have done? And since that man was powerful and I would need his ongoing support in the future, making a sacrifice to gain his favor would have seemed like a reasonable move. But such thinking was a delusion that I was able to avoid.
I can’t share details of what the disagreement involved, but it was a classic case of a negotiation in which the obvious thing to do was to “split the difference.” It was somewhat like this: “You have four of my people, I want them back. Give me two and it’s good.” Fortunately, I had a roadmap and a plan. I didn’t waver. Following the principles on negotiation I had learned from the FBI’s former head negotiator for hostage crises, Chris Voss, in his groundbreaking book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, instead of breaking down, I smiled and explained that returning his people was not an option, and while I couldn’t give back what he wanted, I was there to talk about how we would help him solve the real problem they had. He repeated his demands and each time, in a calm low, voice, I smiled and apologized that we couldn’t do that, but discussed how we would help and asked for his guidance on how best to help them meet their real needs.
When his people demanded to know why I couldn’t make the concessions they wanted, I didn’t need to give them reasons to nitpick. I was there to help, not to argue. “I’m sorry, we can’t change that, but let’s talk about what we can do to help you….” I was in problem solving mode, seeking suggestions on how we could best help them with their real problem. I expressed our desire to cooperate and talked about how we could do that, but no unnecessary concessions were made. No groveling in fear was needed. I was able to acknowledge their emotions: “It looks like this is very disturbing to you. It must seem very unfair that I have something you want and won’t let it go.” “Yes, exactly. Give them back now.” “I’m so sorry, we can’t do that, they are all needed where they are, but here’s what we will do to address the real problem….”
The previous agreement they wanted reversed stood. In the end, their real needs were met without any painful concessions. I’ve met him since then and he is surprisingly friendly. He’s no longer the CEO there — there have been two replacements since that crisis. Any investment in the relationship by sacrificing others would have been meaningless in the long run. The proposed win/lose would have become a loss for both parties eventually. I’m so grateful that I found the guidance I needed for this crisis at just the right time.
That book, Never Split the Difference, has influenced me time and time again and helped me find a path forward in many complex situations. Unlike some of the terrible advice one finds in the business world on the topic of negotiations and sales, Chris Voss is not teaching one to crush opponents and take everything, destroying long-term trust. His approach is not the win/lose dynamic of bargaining, but is aimed at helping you get what’s essential while helping the other party to be treated with respect and to have their needs met as well (though sometimes, in the world of FBI negotiations, they will need to go jail, a superior alternative to being shot).
Voss’s broad approach recognizes that negotiation is at play in any conversation or interaction where you want to bring about change. What makes Voss’s work a “church book” in my opinion is that it is essential for those seeking to minster, for ministering is about interaction to bring about change in the lives of others. The principles Voss teaches, often based on scientific research and profound psychological insights from decades of research within the FBI, are potentially useful in religious settings while obviously valuable in many aspects of business and life in general.
Never Split the Difference reflects decades of research and experience within the FBI in dealing with some of the harshest and most dangerous people on the planet: criminals, bank robbers, terrorists, crazy people willing to kill the hostages they have taken. I know, this doesn’t sound like the kind of experience that is going to help your local bishop deal with his congregation, or a parent deal with an ordinary teenager having a minor crisis. But the brilliant insight behind this book is that each of these people, however threatening and crazy they seem to us, are still people deep down and have some basic humanity that needs to be respected. What the FBI has learned from numerous interactions with criminals of all kinds has revealed a great deal about humans in general, and Voss has found that his experience is broadly applicable. Based on my experiences in applying his work, I strongly concur.
When the criminals holding hostages start making crazy demands, something important is happening: they are reaching out and asking to be heard. This is a critical opportunity for change if and only if someone is willing to do one of the most difficult, fundamental steps of real negotiating: listening. Not arguing, not shoving threats and arguments down their throat, but listening carefully and intensely to what is being said. In hostage negotiation, the FBI may have six or more people listening intensely to every conversation, tuning in to difference aspects to learn as much as possible. What is the emotional tone of the opponent? What can be learned from background noises, from word choice, from references to other parties, from statements about the hostages, from threats or the details of demands?
Listening brings information that can be used for advantage to resolve problems and meet real needs. It builds rapport. It can reveal what the real issues are. It is through the trust and understanding that comes through listening that FBI negotiators often find opportunities to save lives and bring about real change. This should be a fundamental principle for LDS ministers and actually everybody seeking to be more effective in life. Voss teaches a great deal about the art of listening and building trust, not based on sham techniques, but on sincerely listening with all one’s energy to hear what the real issues are on the other side, and letting the others know that you are seeking to understand. So basic, but it’s an art. I don’t do this well, but some of my best moments have been when I really tried.
Voss follows his extensive guidance on listening with a treatment of the tool of constructive questions. Rather than looking for ways to press your position and push your arguments in negotiation (ouch, that’s how I’ve negotiated–or rather, argued in vain–so often in my life!), the smart negotiator looks for ways to help the other party find solutions to their problems. Constructive open-ended questions are often the key. These questions are respectful and in essence ask the other party for help. For the FBI, such a question might be, “How can I pay the random when I don’t even know if she is still alive?” This presents a problem and asks the other party for help — for evidence about the state of the hostage — without demanding that in a way that might just get a “no” answer. Other examples of such questions could be, “The whole report by Monday? How am I supposed to do that?” or “How can I give you the car keys when you haven’t kept your part of the agreement yet?” or “What about this agreement doesn’t work for you?”
Properly constructed questions can educate the other party about a problem without causing conflict by lecturing them about the problem. The question does not offer a direct target for attack like a statement does, and does not invite a mere yes or no answer that gets you nowhere. They typically begin with “what” or “how” and avoid “who,” “when,” “where,” or other forms that can result in a quick answer that doesn’t move the interaction forward. Carefully constructed questions, often crafted in the preparations for a negotiation, can let the other party feel they are being respected and are in control, but can bring out information or concessions as they respond to the problem before them. When needed, open-ended questions can also buy valuable time.
Also key to Voss’s approach is the role of emotion. We like to think that negotiation is about both parties logically finding an intermediate solution based on rational principles, but as David Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow reveals, emotion often and easily dominates our decision making process, and if we don’t understand and control the emotional aspects, we can make poor decisions. Voss gives vital guidance on controlling our emotions and understanding the emotions of the other party to reach a good outcome. Almost weekly in the business world I see negotiations go awry as parties become emotional or angry and upset the possibility of a sound resolution. Learning to stay calm, cheerful, smiling and in control even when under pressure or attack is so valuable. Understanding how another party may seek to manipulate your emotions can also help you avoid trouble.
When someone you care about suddenly attacks the Church or states that they aren’t going to college after all or wish to make a decision you find terrible, the natural man is ready to respond with emotion. It is the saint that can stay loving, listen, and build a lasting connection with the rebel that may be able to influence them for good in the end. Voss’s book, whether he realizes it or not, helps bring out the saint in us to help us better cope with threatening challenges such as a crisis of faith. Stay calm. Slow it down. Listen carefully. Be cheerful. Smile. Use a calming voice. Don’t let your emotions run away. These are tools for hostage negotiators, but also for ministers, missionaries, moms and dads, employees, and all of us as we face conflict, change, disappointment, and, in the midst of it all, the opportunity to make a difference.
Voss’s work shows great sensitivity to the nuances of language. The way we say something is critical. This is a vital lesson for religious leaders, of course. Too often we can speak truth in ways that drive people from it. Gentleness, respect, caution, and emotional intelligence is urgently needed in our religious dialogues and in all our discourse. Reading Voss can move us forward in this area.
Voss teaches the need to understand and label the emotions of the other party. This approach helps show you are listening and understanding, and acknowledging their position in a non-judgemental way. Rather than ignore the emotions of the other party, they can be identified and influenced through “tactical empathy” to guide behavior. His treatment of emotions is one of the most valuable of many significant contributions in his book.
Never Split the Difference is loaded with high-tension, dramatic stories sharing some of the joys and griefs of a seasoned hostage crisis negotiator. But Voss has found the common vein of humanity through it all that connects our more mundane experiences to the life-and-death dramas where the world’s best negotiating techniques have been honed. Not techniques for tricking and crushing an opponent, but for helping them and us at the same time. Techniques that can even become a valuable tool in the work of ministering, when properly applied.
Voss does give some hard-hitting guidance and tools that can be misapplied, and I cannot say that every page or chapter is Gospel-compatible. But I believe there are core principles and many useful techniques that, applied in love and sincerity, will be valuable to a Christian seeking to better help others in ministering or just being a good friend or family member.
It’s the least religious “church” book that I think ministers, Christians, and good people of all faiths ought to read in order to better succeed in life and in the work of helping others.