never split the difference?

The book I’m reading, Never Split the Difference, seems to propose a moral dilemma: is it actually ethical in all situations to never split the difference? The thesis of the book is that you can achieve everything that you want by following the same principles of hostage negotiators. The principles include: mirroring, tactical empathy, gaining permission, and active listening that leads to “that’s right,” to name a few.

The author, Chris Voss, spent the majority of his career as a hostage negotiator for the FBI. In the situations that he describes, it makes perfect sense that you would never want to split the difference. You cannot split the difference on someone’s life. However, it is Voss’ implications of his strategies into the business and personal world that makes me feel a little uneasy.

It is not that Voss is proposing anything extraordinarily unethical. In fact, all of his ideas/strategies could really be boiled down to one thing: listening. In order to persuade hostage-takers to release their prisoners, all Voss did was listened really well and showed the hostage-taker that he was listening by echoing back what he heard. I think that this is good and so necessary. Every person deserves the gift of being heard.

However, what if the “listener” is merely listening in order to gain something? Does that change it? If you are only listening in order to get a seat on a plane that is booked? Or have a potential donor sign a check? But perhaps I’m being grandiose in my ideals: is it possible to have a human interaction without trying to gain something?

Perhaps it is the superlative that bothers me: never. Of course, in Voss’ line of work, you don’t want to ever split the difference. But when it comes to daily life, to proclaim to “never split the difference” sounds manipulative. You can both negotiate by listening and compromise too; it’s okay. And it perhaps it is the more generous way to live.