A former FBI hostage negotiator discusses how to apply FBI negotiation techniques to business and everyday life. I was surprised that the approach is mostly about listening really well and helping the other side feel heard.

Core message - Curiosity

Never Split the Difference is an engaging read that makes its points through an abundance of stories and quick summaries.

The author respects Getting to Yes (another fantastic read on negotiation), but feels Getting to Yes assumes too much rationality in the negotiating parties. Never Split the Difference focuses on people as emotional beings and shows how to overcome emotional barriers that often keep us from rational and collaborative problem solving.

The underlying approach is to be curious, listen intensely, and help the other person feel heard. By doing so, it calms down the other party, builds a relationship, and uncovers more of their interests. This adds up to a deal where you’re more likely to get what you want and everyone feels good about it.

This includes situations where you can’t actually give anything to the other side. As he points out, hostage negotiators usually have to get everything they want without giving much or anything to the hostage taker. Similar rules often apply when dealing with children who don’t want to follow rules, upset customers, etc. Yet the right approach can still leave both sides feeling good and preserving the relationship.

I absolutely love this message. It fits well with my recent learnings around the socratic method and curiosity as a leadership tool.

Curiosity, with a few techniques for showing you’re listening, helps the other side feel heard, connected, and often cared for. In fact, he mentions research showing that positive emotions improve mental agility. This puts everyone in a better position to solve problems. This includes making deals, teaching/learning, or most any kind of problem solving.

Example Techniques

A key technique he focuses on is calibrated questions. These are open-ended questions that are mostly “how” or “what” focused.

A few examples

  • “What are some of the biggest challenges you face?”
  • “What about this is important to you?”
  • “How can I make this better for us?”
  • “What is it that brought us into this situation?”
  • “How can we solve this problem?”
  • “What is the objective? What are we trying to accomplish here?”
  • “How am I supposed to do that?”

Calibrated questions invite your counterpart to elaborate. They can be used to uncover more information, show interest, or encourage the other party to think through their position more. When encouraging further reflection, calibrated questions can act as a way of saying no that is less confrontational.

Well chosen questions shape the conversation. The questions direct the focus while leaving the other party with choice. People are more likely to accept (and like) solutions they propose, even if you used questions to direct proposals until they fit your needs. It’s an invitation for them to choose a solution that satisfies both of you.

A fit for motivation-focused development

I notice that most of these question examples point back to uncovering motivations. That is, to better understand your counterpart. This overlaps well with my development philosophy. Which is to tie work back to motivations/ the problem being solved early and often. I see programming itself as a process of clarifying needs until they’re specific enough for software to run. Calibrated questions may refine my skills for extracting intent and thus for writing better software.


In summary, I greatly enjoyed this book. It overlaps significantly with other lessons I’ve learned and builds on them. It defines actionable ways to ask gentle and purposeful questions, manage emotions constructively, and solve problems while leaving everyone feeling good about it.