Negotiation Skills: Utilizing the Power of Silence

By Chuck Doran and Daniele Natali Goldberg

A lot of negotiation advice focuses around what you should say and how you should say it. How should I begin the conversation? What’s the best way to relay a difficult or uncomfortable message? When should I talk about price? How do I suggest solutions? With all the focus on how to shape a negotiation with what you say, it can be easy to overlook one of the most powerful tools a negotiator can utilize: silence.

We tend to think of silences negatively. We describe them as “uncomfortable” and seek to avoid them. We see them as a failure to move along the conversation and fill them quickly. However, when used properly and strategically, silence can be a great way to improve your negotiations.

The Power of Silence

This article from The Washington Post says: “Silence, it turns out, is one of the most powerful weapons an individual can bring to the table.” But where does the power of silence lie?

  • Silence implies confidence:  There’s a reason that the descriptors “strong” and “silent” are often paired together. It takes a confident person to calmly sit in silence in the face of a tough negotiation. Even if you don’t feel particularly confident, strategically choosing to employ silence in your negotiations can help get there.
  • Silence shows that you are listening: In negotiation, information is power. It’s how we learn more about the other side’s interests, identify new ways of creating value, and work towards win-win solutions. If we spend most of the time talking, rather than opening space for the other person to speak, we miss out of key information that will make us more effective negotiators and help us create better deals. Silence gives the other person space to speak, and it displays your willingness to listen and learn more. “Silent” and “Listen” are comprised of the same letters. Coincidence? Probably not.
  • Silence expects a response: Sometimes, your negotiation counterpart is quiet or reserved with their communication. Perhaps they are utilizing positional negotiation tactics, hoping to draw you into a framework of bargaining and haggling. In this case, you need to convince the other side to negotiate in an interest-based way focused on mutual gains. While you can clearly state your goal to work together to create more value in the negotiation, you can also utilize silence elicit more open communication. Just as your might be uncomfortable with silence, it’s likely that your negotiation counterpart is as well. After a thoughtful question, allowing silence increases the likelihood that the other side will respond with more information and clarity.

Utilizing Silence in Negotiations

Some negotiators speak of silence as an aggressive tactic that one can use to manipulate and pressure the other side to share more information than they initially intended to. If you do so, however, you may find that the pressure and discomfort from your aggressive tactic damages your relationship with the other person, possibly hindering your current negotiation as well as potential future negotiations.

When used genuinely and sparingly, you can utilize silence in a way that exemplifies your confidence and empowers your negotiation counterpart to collaborate with you, without creating too much pressure or making the other person uncomfortable or defensive.

  • Encourage them to speak with inquiry: Start by asking your negotiation counterpart an open-ended question, then sit back and be ready to listen. When the other person is finished speaking, allow a few more seconds of silence. This shows that you respect their space and want to hear from them, and they may continue speaking after a pause.
  • Practice active listening: You may be silent, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t engaged. Show that you are still part of the conversation and eager to hear more by opening your body language and making eye contact. If the silence continues, sit back in your chair and shift your eye contact to remove some pressure from the other side. Once they are done speaking, try to recap what you heard, focusing on naming any of their interests you identified.
  • After you speak, be silent: After you make a statement or request to your negotiation counterpart, avoid the instinct to tack on follow-up questions and explanations. Instead, utilize silence. This gives the other person space to be thoughtful about their response to what you said, and it allows your statement to sink in and clarify. It also allows the other person to respond openly to what they found most important in you statement, rather than to a narrow follow-up question.
  • Avoid the desire to fill gaps: Sometimes, conversations come to a natural lag. Rather than viewing this as a negative, use that time to be thoughtful about why there is silence. Are you feeling stuck for a specific reason? Take time to assess your counterpart’s body language and tone – do they seem uncomfortable, angry, or upset? Are they possibly analyzing an option that was put on the table, digesting a large amount of information or a statement that was difficult to hear, or planning how to move forward in a resource-strapped situation? Rather than mindlessly filling blank spaces in the conversation, utilize that time to diagnose what is happening and plan the next best step.

Just like other negotiation skills, utilizing silence effectively requires practice and reflection. Let us know about your experiences and advice in the comments below.

Improve Your Negotiation Skills

To learn about improving your negotiation skills and confidence as a negotiator, contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org.

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