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  • Daniel Stern Serviansky

Splitting the Difference

Updated: Oct 5, 2019

{3 minutes to read} There is a recent book on negotiation titled Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss, writing with Tahl Raz. Increasingly, participants in trainings with interest in negotiation are sometimes arriving with prior exposure to the material through that book, in addition to more established classics like Getting to Yes.

So, to succeed in negotiation, am I really supposed to never split the difference? What I tell my students is that splitting the difference is a tactical move that they should use when it is in their favor and avoid when it is not. This is how you determine when to use the tactic of splitting the difference.

Fundamentally, fixed-pie negotiations are about each side stating a number and then engaging in a process of reciprocal concessions until they settle on a final number. The reason that this type of negotiation tends to play out in this way is that it harnesses fundamental aspects of human psychology, specifically reciprocity and fairness (that is, turn-taking) and an idea that a result should be equidistant from either side’s positions.

Raz and Voss, quite correctly, point out that if all you are doing is taking what they want and what you want, and choosing something in the middle that makes no one happy, then you are not really negotiating successfully, and you should avoid splitting the difference in that way. However, let's look a bit further into this idea of distributive negotiations playing out through reciprocity and fairness.

At any moment in a negotiation there will be a “bid” and an “ask” on the table. Our psychological impulse toward fairness will automatically introduce a third number, which is the midpoint or focal point between those two positions.

My advice is to track those bids and asks and compare them to your prior aspirations. If the midpoint or focal point that results from the bid and ask is, at any moment, favorable to you, then that is when you propose splitting the difference.

Voss and Raz’s book is quite worthwhile. They have some very useful insights on persuasion in high-stakes negotiations, and, properly understood, their advice on splitting the difference is also spot-on. I would, however, remind you that tactics such as splitting the difference that produce sub-optimal results when used naively can be very powerful when used analytically and opportunistically.

Daniel Serviansky


(212) 655-9793



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