Never Split The Difference/ How Empathy Is The Real Hero

LinkedIn, for all its flaws, is a pretty good way to find new books to read. After a recommendation, I ordered ‘Never Split the Difference’ by Chris Voss, the leading FBI hostage negotiator for over 20 years. It’s a masterclass in negotiation tactics written by a man who literally negotiated with terrorists for the lives of hostages.

It’s an incredible read.

The title comes from the notion that most people will avoid conflict at all costs and offer to split the difference. You take half, and I take half. But you cannot do this with hostages.

“How about this… just kill two and let two go”. You don’t need an FBI badge to know that won’t work. Instead, Chris explains how to negotiate like someone’s life depends on it, until you’re left holding all the cards you need to bring about a winning outcome.

There is some amazing advice, combined with the real-life situations where he learned it on the job, whether it is a bank heist in downtown New York on his very first job as a negotiator, or dealing with South American gangs kidnapping the family members of politicians and demanding thousands of dollars in ransom.

Now, I am not going to attempt to explain any of his tactics in detail here, because:

A) I will not do them justice.

B) You are better off reading the book yourself.

C) I will end up on one of those viral LinkedIn pages as the guy who compared recruitment to hostage negotiation. That is not what I’m going for here.

Instead, I want to explore one of the main themes of the book that we can all relate to;


Harvard Law Professor Robert Mnookin describes empathy as “the process of demonstrating an accurate, nonjudgmental understanding of the other side’s needs, issues, and perspective.” He goes on to say that the difference between this and sympathy is that for the former you don’t need to be nice, you don’t need to ‘feel their pain’, and you don’t even need to like or agree with the other side.

The FBI have a similar, albeit more clinical summary: Identification/understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

This has not always been on their radar, or in training. In ‘the good old days’ police were sent in with as many weapons as they could carry, to disarm the situation, and people wondered why hostages kept getting killed. The 1974 Huntsville Prison siege is the longest in history, spanning 11 days in Huntsville, Texas. It ended with the perpetrators being sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses. Two hostages were killed shortly thereafter this tactic was employed.

Notoriously, at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists. The German authorities planned an attack at an airfield. It failed and ended in an epic gun battle on the tarmac. All the Israeli athletes, coaches, a police officer, and five terrorists were killed in the atrocity.

Something different had to be done.

In 1979 The Harvard Negotiation Process was founded to develop a theory of negotiation that could be applied to everything from hostage negotiations to business deals. The aim was for the FBI and other organisations to apply this theory to critical everyday scenarios and try and save the lives of hostages involved moving forward.

There was just one problem.

They presented their findings as logical and rational, carefully following a flow chart of steps and disregarding the emotional response centres of the human brain. This was of course flawed, as Chris explains in the book. When tensions are running high, it’s the emotional brain is usually the only one taking charge, and that must be the one to be appealed to.

In the same year, Amos Tversky, and Daniel Kahneman, two University of Chicago professors published their research into ‘Prospect Theory’, in which they found over 150 subconscious biases that influence human decision-making.

This was a direct contradiction to the Harvard study, and they argued that ignoring emotional thoughts and feelings when negotiating is like trying to make an omelette without first knowing how to crack open an egg.

Prospect theory is based on loss aversion and is just one example of how human nature can influence decisions. Consider the following two options, which would you choose in each scenario?

  • A 100% chance to gain £500, or a 50% chance to gain £1000?
  • A 100% chance to lose £500, or a 50% chance to lose £1000?

Most people would ignore any mathematical reasoning and choose a certainty of gaining £500, at the risk of losing it, even though it’s the lower amount, and choose a 50% chance of losing £1000, as there’s a chance, they might not lose anything, rather than pick the certainty of losing £500.

This is just one bias that can be applied to negotiating, along with hundreds more. In the years to come. Through the 1980s, the FBI switched their approach to focus more on empathetic listening techniques, to find out what was important to their aggressors.

A real-life and very simple example of this came in 1998 when three fugitives trapped themselves in an apartment in New York City with automatic weapons. A situation that could have easily ended in a shootout with the police, and plenty of innocent bloodshed. However, given their switch of tactics, Chris stood on one side of the door and spoke to them, labelling their feelings. “It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail”, and “It seems as if you don’t want to leave the safety of the apartment and be caught in gunfire”. After 6 hours of this, the fugitives gave up their weapons and exited the apartment. No lives were lost.

Listening was never a strong suit of mine. I’m sure my parents, teachers, and a few ex-girlfriends can testify. A few Christmases ago I was digging around my parents’ house and found report cards from school, all saying the same thing.

“Ben shows potential however gets distracted very easily.”

“Ben is a bright boy, but needs to work on his listening skills”.

The funny thing is, every appraisal and 1-2-1 I’ve ever had in my professional career along with every personality and insight test say exactly the same thing. I remember sitting in my annual appraisal with my General Manager when I was a Junior Manager and hearing that I would NEVER get a top score for the organisation module, which included listening.

I remember getting very defensive and taking it to heart. But he was right. People don’t change their core qualities and behaviours; they can only manage their weaknesses, and slowly improve.

Over the last 2 years at Global Talent 2020, I’ve vastly improved my listening skills, and thus empathy because I’ve had no other choice. When you’re on the phone all day you can’t read body language, you only have the other person’s tone, cadence, and words to go on.

Finding out what is important to people is an essential part of the job, but that’s the easy part. It’s also crucial to determine how someone really feels about a situation, an interview, a relocation, etc. A bad recruiter will ignore what their candidate is saying, not pick up on signals, or worse, pick them up and then ignore them to benefit themselves to hit a performance KPI target.

A good recruiter will pause, delay a decision, or in some examples completely stop a process based on what their candidate says. The only way to move forward is by getting to the truth, and you can only get to the truth by listening and then asking the correct, direct questions to follow up.

You don’t have to listen very hard, and over time your intuition improves. Most people will give away words, phrases, or a tone of voice, that will give a clue as to really how they are feeling. Unless they are a world champion poker player it will come out through a simple conversation.

By addressing these concerns and speaking openly about them, you can build trust with your candidate and actually spark some relief, having an honest conversation about how they are feeling and what they think about the opportunity presented.

What are the most important qualities a recruiter can have? Listening skills and the empathy to act on what they hear.

Anyway, sorry I interrupted… what were you saying?

Written by Ben Jones

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