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Rule No. 11. Understand the Power of Silence in a Negotiation

We live in a world of noise where silence has almost ceased to exist.A significant majority of people are uncomfortable with it and seek to fill it even with mundane background noise.We regularly see this manifest itself in countless businesses where we see people in meetings and negotiations talking too much, tripping over themselves to ‘lead the conversation’ or to interject as soon as the other person pauses so that they can post their arguments.It is as though silence is to be avoided and immediately filled.Even when we ask people to use silence as a tool, they say they feel excruciatingly uncomfortable with it even, in some case, after just a couple of seconds.

Why is Silence So Effective?

We take a slightly different view of silence, and there is rather more to it than you might initially think.Silence can be extremely effective in several different ways:

  • It allows you to receive more information and to gather your thoughts before you speak.
  • It can make the other party feel extremely uncomfortable during the silence.So much so that they speak again to fill the void (and give away unplanned and useful information).
  • It can make you look more powerful and even a little mysterious.The less you talk, the deeper, more considered and powerful you look.
  • It adds impact and clarity to your speech by introducing pauses between key statements.
  • It forces you to become better at controlling your body language by using simple non-verbal cues to convey essential messages to other party (such as nodding or shaking the head)

Who Uses Silence Effectively?

Based on the thousands of delegates who have participated in our development programmes, and our own participation in many negotiations, the vast majority of people (in our view more than 90%) do not use silence at all, or use it badly.

  • Most are supremely unaware of the power of silence and how to use it. Often, these are the negotiators who do not know when to simply shut up’! Indeed, they talk so much that they often end up negotiating against themselves. They are so uncomfortable with silence that they often say the first thing that comes into their heads to fill the vacuum – and often this is very last thing they wanted to talk about!
  • A few are aware of this power but use silence very clumsily. They can achieve some success against submissive, unassertive or inexperienced negotiators but in most cases, it simply irritates the other party and leads to a deadlock. These are the passive-aggressive negotiators who plan to exploit long, awkward silences deliberately in order to apply pressure. They might simply stare at the other party without saying a word, or even look completely disinterested, in order to destabilise the situation for their advantage.
A few use silence highly effectively either because they are natural negotiators or through practise and advanced coaching. For the most part, these individuals have enhanced questioning and listening skills and high levels of EQ. They know how to use simple cues to keep the other party talking (such as a nod of the head, or an encouraging “Go on...”) and then they listen intently to the response.

When to Use Silence

Since silence is such a powerful tool which can help negotiators get what they want, it makes sense to have a good understanding of just exactly when to use it during the negotiation. Here are some key examples:

After making an offer.

One of the most critical times for you to deploy silence is immediately after you have made an offer or presented your position. Often negotiators feel uncomfortable, for example, with their opening price position. Consequently, they continue to explain why this price is so high, begin to apologise, and then begin to negotiate themselves downward! The correct answer is to present your position confidently and then smile and stop talking (or ‘zip it’ as we like to say).

After asking a problem or implication question.

Questioning technique is as much about letting the other party answer fully as about the question. The initial response will often be a quick superficial answer, but by pausing and encouraging the other party with a few non-verbal cues and a few seconds of silence (ideally 4-5 seconds), they will then give a deeper and much more revealing answer. By rushing into the next question quickly, this vital information can be missed.

After the other party has challenged you.

A pause after a direct challenge will often force the other party to think again. For example, after your client says “It’s too expensive”, you should pause and say nothing. We have found that this frequently causes the other party to attempt their own solution; “I suppose we will have to find the budget from elsewhere then” is a typical response to silence in this instance.

How to use silence

Learning how to use silence effectively is a critical negotiation skill. As we have described above, in business negotiations, what happens after 3-5 seconds of silence can be quite remarkable. So, focus on using short silences to encourage the other party subtly. Frankly, anything much over 10-12 seconds is getting too long and counter-productive, particularly in Western European negotiations. Interestingly, Chinese negotiators are trained to stay silent and impassive for prolonged periods because that makes Americans and Europeans uncomfortable and more prone to making concessions. The negotiations to bring an end to the war in Vietnam (the Paris Accord 1968-73) is a good example of this.

We previously mentioned the passive-aggressive negotiators who use long, awkward silences to destabilise the other party. Often this is counter-effective, as we explained. Once a silence is getting into the 45-60 second zone, you need to break the ice (without conceding the point). A short “Let’s come back to this issue after we have discussed ...” works well.

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