Dear Negotiation Coach: When Silence is Golden

By on / Negotiation Skills

Question:

I have the sense that silence can sometimes be useful, but it usually just makes me feel uncomfortable. Does silence have benefits in negotiation?

A: In Western cultures, many people are uncomfortable with silence. We tend to talk on top of one another, with little pause between point and counterpoint. Any silence that occurs often feels awkward, as you’ve experienced. But effective negotiators know that silence can be a useful tool. Here are four advantages of silence:

  1. Silence helps you absorb what you’re hearing. Research shows that people have a difficult time truly listening to the other side in a negotiation. While our counterpart is talking, our tendency is to prepare our response rather than listen. You may think your delivery of a “zinger” line right on the heels of someone’s comment is an effective move, but doing so implicitly signals that you were too busy thinking to listen closely.

Allowing a few moments of silence before you respond will help you turn off your internal voice and listen more effectively. An experienced corporate attorney recently told me about a junior investment banker he was coaching. He observed that the banker would jump in with a response as soon as the other side finished speaking. The attorney suggested a slight pause—“Count to three in your head”—before responding. The result, according to the attorney, was like night and day. The banker performed substantively better and was perceived as wise beyond his years.

Silence also allows you to deploy active-listening skills: paraphrasing, inquiring, and acknowledgment. Experience shows that active listening is not an instinctive skill in negotiation; instead, our tendency is to advocate for our point of view. When you are truly listening, and the other party feels listened to, the active-listening tool kit becomes far more natural. Silence gives you the few seconds you need to broaden your repertoire in this important way. In general, great negotiators may or may not be good talkers, but they are always good listeners. Silence gives you the ability to dampen your instincts for self-advocacy and amplify your instinct to listen.

  1. Silence can allow you to defuse anchors. Silence can also be a very powerful tool for defusing anchors clearly and forcefully in a negotiation. When your counterpart names an outrageous figure, your stunned silence will far more effectively defuse the anchor than heaps of protesting would. Defusing anchors through silence is particularly effective in over-the-phone negotiations, where the other side may wonder (and worry) for a moment if you hung up in response to her aggressive offer.
  2. Silence can allow you to minimize or avoid psychological biases. A long stream of research in behavioral economics and social psychology indicates that negotiators are susceptible to cognitive biases, including framing effects, the contrast principle, and loss aversion. Research further shows that, in addition to being aware of these phenomena, having time to think during a negotiation allows you to mitigate or avoid these biases. Silence buys you time to diagnose: “What’s going on here?”
  3. Silence can allow you to “go to the balcony.” In his seminal book Getting Past No (Bantam, revised edition, 1993), William Ury urges negotiators to “go to the balcony” in difficult situations. How would a third party view the situation? Silence gives you the few seconds that are essential to “take a distanced view of close things,” according to Ury.

As these guidelines suggest, sometimes the best thing to say in a negotiation is nothing at all.

 

Guhan Subramanian

Joseph Flom Professor of Law & Business, Harvard Law School

Douglas Weaver Professor of Business Law, Harvard Business School

Academic Editor, Negotiation Briefings

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