1: For six months, the prospect dragged his feet. But now there’s been a major system collapse, and he is under tremendous pressure to fix it.  

“Be here by Friday morning, or the deal is off,” he tells Ryan.

Ryan buys an airline ticket for the next day, Thursday. But when he arrives at the Baltimore airport, he discovers there’s been a freak lightning storm. The airport will be closed for five hours.

“It became painfully clear that Ryan wasn’t going to make his original connection to Austin from Dallas,” Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference


Ryan’s flight finally arrives in Dallas at 8 pm. He sprints to the gate where the day’s final flight to Austin is leaving in less than 30 minutes.

As Ryan approaches the gate, a couple in front of him is yelling at the gate agent, who responds by “barely looking at them as she tapped on her computer in front of her,” Chris writes. “She was clearly making every effort not to scream back.” 

“There’s nothing I can do,” the gate agent says repeatedly.

The angry couple gives up and walks away.

2: Ryan approaches the desk.

“Following on the heels of an argument is a great position for a negotiator, because your counterpart is desperate for an empathetic connection,” Chris writes. “Smile, and you’re already an improvement.” 

“Hi, Wendy, I’m Ryan. It seems like they were pretty upset.” 

Ryan begins by labeling the negative.  

His goal is to establish rapport based on empathy. We begin by putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. “The beauty of empathy is that it doesn’t demand that you agree with the other person’s ideas (you may well find them crazy),” Chris notes. “But by acknowledging the other person’s situation, you immediately convey that you are listening.”

The label encourages Wendy to elaborate: “Yeah. They missed their connection. We’ve had a fair amount of delays because of the weather.” 

“The weather?” Ryan then mirrors to invite her to go further.

Wendy explains how the delays in the Northeast have caused delays across the system.  

“It seems like it’s been a hectic day.” Ryan labels the negative again.  

“There have been a lot of irate consumers, you know?” she says. “I mean I get it, even though I don’t like to be yelled at. A lot of people are trying to get to Austin for the big game.” 

“The big game?” Ryan mirrors.

“UT is playing Ole Miss football and every flight into Austin has been booked solid.” 

“Booked solid?” More mirroring.

Chris observes: “Up to this point, Ryan has been using labels and mirrors to build a relationship with Wendy. To her it must seem like idle chatter, though, because he hasn’t asked for anything. Unlike the angry couple, Ryan is acknowledging her situation. His words ping-pong between ‘What’s that?’ and ‘I hear you,’ both of which invite her to elaborate.”

“Yeah, all through the weekend. Though who knows how many people will make the flights. The weather’s probably going to reroute a lot of people through a lot of different places.” 

“Well, it seems like you’ve been handling the rough day pretty well,” he says. 

Then: “I was also affected by the weather delays and missed my connecting flight. It seems like this flight is likely booked solid, but with what you said, maybe someone affected by the weather might miss this connection. Is there any possibility a seat will be open?” 

Label, tactical empathy, label. Only then a request. 

Ryan is now directing the conversation toward what he hopes for. “But notice how he acts,” Chris observes: “Not assertive or coldly logical, but with empathy and labeling that acknowledges her situation and tacitly puts them in the same boat.” 

Wendy says nothing as she begins typing on her computer. 

Ryan remains silent as well. He doesn’t want to talk himself out of a possible solution.  

After thirty seconds, Wendy prints a boarding pass and hands it to Ryan, explaining that a few seats are open that were supposed to be filled by people arriving much later than the flight’s departure. 

“To make Ryan’s success even better, she puts him in Economy Plus seating,” Chris notes. “All that in under two minutes!”

3: What are we to make of this interaction?

Chris suggests we view this conversation as “an extension of natural human interactions and not artificial conversational tics.”

Being empathetic, labeling the other person’s emotions, and mirroring back what the person says are “emotional best practices that help us cure the pervasive ineptitude that marks our most critical conversations in life,” he writes. “They will help us connect and create more meaningful and warm relationships.”

Yes, they can be effective negotiating tactics, but “human connection is the first goal,” Chris concludes.

More tomorrow!


Reflection: How intentional am I about how I show up for important conversations?  

Action: Experiment with these conversational best practices today.

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