Silence is golden

Most people would agree that a vital success factor in business negotiation is strong communication skills: the ability to convey your message as clearly and diplomatically as possible so that you achieve your desired outcomes. This is mainly done through verbal communication, i.e. with words, and moderated by tone and volume of voice. We often pay less attention to non-verbal signals, e.g. body language and facial expressions, on the other hand, and the use of silence can be particularly neglected.

Silence can sometimes be perceived as a refusal or inability to speak, a sign of weakness as a negotiator. So often we rush to fill that dreaded awkward silence, as we think that this is what effective communicators are supposed to do  and what many of us feel more comfortable with. However, silence doesn’t have to mean that effective communication is not taking place. In fact, silence can be a powerful negotiation tool, particularly when negotiating across cultures and your counterparts may not share your first language or your communication preferences. Knowing when to stop talking and listen is just as important as knowing what to say. This comes more naturally to some of us than to others but it’s definitely a negotiation skill that anyone doing business at home or away should perfect.

Silence is golden because…

1. By attempting to fill the silence, you could be in danger of talking too much and too quickly – and your counterparts might miss a fundamental point you’re trying to make, particularly if they are operating in a second or even a third language. The more concise your message is, the greater the impact it will have and the clearer it will be.

2.  By getting your counterpart to do the talking and listening actively, you’ll gain their trust and confidence in you as a long-term business partner. And in some parts of the world, particularly east Asian countries, silence is a sign of respect while talking too much and certainly interrupting could be considered as rude.

3.  Your silence may even encourage the other side to reveal more than they intended. If you remain silent after an offer is put on the table, your counterpart will inevitably wonder why you are not saying anything and what you are thinking, and will subsequently be more likely to make concessions.

4.  Silence in the right places could help you to come across as more confident, and less desperate to gain approval.

5.  Silence also gives you the necessary time to reflect and think carefully before saying something you might regret later on. It is a way to maintain control in a negotiation.

6.  Last but not least, silence can be used to convey thoughts and emotions that words simply cannot express.

So, how can we use silence in a negotiation, without coming across as vague, detached or discourteous?

One important thing to bear in mind is that silence should not be confused with lack of fluency or hesitation. The key is knowing when to pause; for example, when you want your counterpart to reconsider, but is to be avoided if it shows that you’re uncertain.

  • Non-verbal signals such as body language/posture, gestures and facial expressions all have an important role to play here. Particularly when silent make sure you maintain enough eye contact with your counterpart in order to signal you are fully engaged in the discussion.
  • There is of course no harm in ‘warning’ your counterpart that silence is coming their way, for example “I’m just going to give you a few moments to consider my offer.” This could help to minimise awkwardness or confusion.
  • If your counterpart is also a master of the silent strategy, simply restate your terms. Don’t give in by providing further explanations or suggestions - wait for him or her to respond first.

It goes without saying (no pun intended!) that being silent in any kind of discussion isn’t always an easy thing to achieve. It takes practice but using silence appropriately in your business negotiations will help you to make your case convincingly and to hold firm when pushed by the other side.

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