A Product Manager Learns New Negotiation Skills

If you're a product manager, you negotiate every day, even if you don't notice. From prioritizing the backlog to determining MVP of a new feature, a majority of our day involves negotiation. And yet, most of us don't have any formal training in this field - and it's always a skill I'm looking to improve.

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After listening to Chris Voss's charming Brooklyn accent on a short podcast interview for a mere five minutes, I immediately bought his new book - Never Split the Difference. Chris was the top FBI hostage negotiator, and he applies the techniques he used for successful hostage negotiation techniques to business.

Big Takeaways from Never Split the Difference

In case you don't want to read the whole book, here are the biggest takeaways.

 This man has a spectacular mustache and also appears to be negotiating spectacularly.

This man has a spectacular mustache and also appears to be negotiating spectacularly.

Mirroring

If I learned one thing from this book, it's how to 'mirror.' This technique is useful to tease out more information without divulging any additional information on your end. I think this is also helpful for customer interviews when you want to keep the user talking!

Mirroring is hard and it feels weird the first few times you do it. But you can mirror successfully by following four simple steps:

  1. Use a low, soft voice.
  2. Repeat the last 3 words the person said.
  3. Wait. (This is very important! Resist the urge to fill the silence. Make your counterpart fill the silence.)
  4. Repeat.
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Here's an example: 

User: "I don't like this app. It's inefficient."
You: "Inefficient?" (PAUSE)
User: "Yes, the buttons aren't placed intuitively."
You: "Aren't placed intuitively?"
User: "Right - I can barely see the 'buy now' button. I'd rather see it in a brighter, more easy-to-see color, or placed in the top right of the page."

That's the information you were looking for!

This feels odd at first, and you'll initially struggle, but this works well when you want to keep people talking, or simply when you need more time to think of how to respond. 

The Power of No

Our fear of 'no' is ingrained in us since childhood, and one of the most fascinating pieces of advice in this book is to change the way you think about 'no.'

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Chris explains that starting with a 'no' is good. 'No' is fantastic! 'No' is the start of the negotiation. More importantly, 'no' is way better than a 'counterfeit yes.'

Understand what 'no' means to your counterpart. 'No' is protection. People feel they're in control when they express their right to tell you 'no'. A lot of other negotiation or sales methodologies lead or trick the counterpart into a 'yes' (which Chris calls a 'counterfeit yes') but Chris explains that unless the person is full invested in their 'yes,' it won't stick.

Once your counterpart says 'no,' use mirrors (above) to tease out more information behind their 'no.' Then you can start moving towards a real yes, or what Chris calls a 'commitment yes.'

Yes is Nothing Without How

When you do get a 'yes,' make sure to ask for next steps. This is particularly important for product managers. For example, if you get an agreement from your development team to deliver a specific set of user stories in Sprint X, make sure you ask how it will be done - what other stories will be moved out of the sprint to make that happen? Who will work on the feature? Identify any other blockers and discuss the how.

You basically want to answer the question: "How will we know we are on track?"

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Don't Compromise

This was perhaps the most audacious thing I read in Never Split the Difference

Most negotiation experts talk about win-win solutions. They praise compromise as the end-all. 

Chris has a different point of view, touting 'No deal is better than a bad deal.'

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Take this analogy:

I want my husband to wear brown shoes with his suit. He wants to wear black shoes. We compromised and he wore one black shoe and one brown shoe.

This is the worst possible outcome, Chris explains. Sometimes, it's better to walk away from a deal if the proposed compromise doesn't achieve your objectives.

Never Split the Difference is Great for Men and Women

As I was reading this book, I noticed that many of the techniques Chris praises may be easier for women to master than men. He advocates empathy may times over, and the value in soft language.

This is counterintuitive to a lot of advice given to women in business - to speak, think, and act 'more like a man.' I've been pushed in this direction in my career, and reading this book made me think about leveraging some of the soft skills with which women are often more apt.

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This is not to say the book is not a wonderful read for both men and women, but that women may find Chris's negotiation style more appealing than some other books that promote a more aggressive approach.

Buy the book here.