Voss begins Never Split the Difference with a great anecdote about his going to Harvard, the Mecca of Negotiation study, armed with his own theories, which have been tested in real time. He is immediately confronted by Robert Mnookin, director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project and author of Bargaining with the Devil. 

Mnookin says, “We have your son. Give us one million dollars or he dies.” 

The way Voss handles this impromptu challenge is both impressive and instructive. If you have not read it, I won’t spoil it for you.

Voss agrees with me that negotiation skills are critical to our success as social beings because they enter into all relationships. This is one reason I spend time studying it.

“My years of negotiating had infused everything from how I dealt with customer service reps to my parenting style,” he says.

In describing his response to Mnookin’s opening move, he characterizes it as follows: “I was employing what had become one of the FBI’s most potent negotiating tools: the open-ended question.”

Why does that make me wonder if Bob Comey knew that and used it with he who sits in the White House?

But I digress.

Voss then tells us that he is now in the private sector and has formed a company called “The Black Swan Group.” Okay. Colorful. Catchy.

At the BSG, they have a name for this negotiation strategy. They call it “calibrated questions: queries that the other side can respond to but that have no fixed answers. It buys you time. It gives your counterpart the illusion of control – they are the one with the answers and power after all – and it does all that without giving them any idea of how constrained they are by it.”

In a thinly veiled attempt to contrast his methods with those propounded by Harvard, he says, “Our techniques were the product of experiential learning; they were developed by agents in the field, negotiating through crisis and sharing stories of what succeeded and what failed.”

“In the twenty years I spent at the Bureau we’d designed a system that had successfully resolved almost every kidnapping we applied it to. But we didn’t have grand theories.” 


Proving another one of my favorite theories: life is trial and error – unavoidable.

A perfect contest between the age old competition between the value of deductive reasoning and lessons learned from practical experience.

To be continued

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