Silence and Negotiation

One of the most powerful tools in a negotiator’s toolbox is silence: absolute, blank-faced, quiet. It can be used when confronted with a tough situation, when given news that is too good to be true, or when you just don’t want to say anything stupid.

Many of us feel compelled to fill the air with words and noise; in fact, it seems that we fear silence. Silence can be uncomfortable; this is particularly true for talkative people (i.e. extroverts). What makes it worse is that talkative people are usually talking about themselves; this is exactly what you don’t want to do when you negotiate. Fast talking, extroverted sales people may be the worst negotiators on the planet.

So why do we dread silence? I am not a therapist, but I think it is because we fear that someone might catch us at our game or see us for what we really are. Silence is a stark naked reality.

Silence can buy you time to think. When you find yourself in a tricky spot in a negotiation, stop everything, shut up and listen. It makes you look smart and it gives you time to think about what you should do next. Meanwhile, because you are not talking you are not making any concessions or giving information to the other side.

It takes practice to be silent. One trick is to stop talking and take notes slowly, which looks really intelligent (although you could be just doodling). Silence can be uncomfortable for the other party as well; what you want is for them to speak first and fill the empty space with information to help you. By definition, when you are silent you are a better listener. When you are silent it also cues the other side to speak. Silence can force the other party to “anchor” (i.e. state their position) first; this can create a strategic advantage for you.

An abbreviated form of silence that is very effective is to incorporate long pauses in your speech. This can be almost as uncomfortable as pure silence. Long pauses can trap the other party into finishing your sentences and bumping their jaws. Practice by pausing for a five second count between your key points; it will seem like an eternity to the other party. Expect them to leap forward filling in the silence; let them speak.

After you master silence, you may occasionally find that others may play the same game as effectively as you. At some point staring at each other waiting for the other to speak seems pointless. In this case, you can just restate what you said previously. Often this restatement challenges the other party to reply. Listen to what they say.

“Silence is a fence around wisdom”. (German Proverb)