Negotiation is an inherently assertive act. Negotiators want to impose their will on others; even the softest negotiations are ultimately about changing what the other side does or believes. It’s a justifiable assumption that the easiest, most effective way to effect that change is to do something actively that reshapes how the other side thinks. So many negotiators naturally try to improve their skills by looking for ways to speak or write more assertively, in order to be more persuasive. But while a direct and outgoing style of communication can be very effective, careful negotiators should also remember that silence is a powerful tool.
The easiest way to use silence is as a prod, although this particular version of the tactic is less effective than its practitioners like to believe. Most people, although not everyone by a long shot, feel uncomfortable with silence in a conversation. They’re inclined to speak into it, to fill it, and will do so without much prompting. And so a certain kind of passive-aggressive negotiator will plan to use that instinct by opening up long, awkward silences during a negotiation. By sitting silently without engaging with their counterparty, they want to use the quiet to apply pressure that would be harder to generate with words. Their hope is that weak, inexperienced, or unprepared negotiators will be pushed into speaking without thinking, maybe spilling more information than they should or even negotiating against themselves. That can work, but experience teaches that it’s usually not as effective as an active back-and-forth conversation can be. It also tends to make the counterparty uncomfortable and defensive, which is rarely a productive combination.
It’s more effective to be subtle. The cleanest use of silence as a communication tool is to give the other side just a few seconds of silence in order to coax them, rather than prodding them, into saying more than they planned to. Instead of a long, awkward silence forced into the conversation, a careful negotiator will wait for the right time to be quiet. Often this means asking an open-ended question that’s going to require a complex, conversational answer. “What are your costs like?” “What are your biggest problems with this project?” (Yes-or-no questions can work too, if they’re the kind of question that naturally invites an immediate follow-up explanation. “Are you behind schedule?” “Yes, because…”) After answering the question, the counterpart will give some of the normal conversation cues that signal they’re done talking, and ready for the negotiator to respond. If the negotiator doesn’t pick up on those cues, and just waits silently the counterpart to continue, they very often will. After all, most people will take any reasonable opportunity to speak—and many will take unreasonable ones.
Silence is useful in this context because someone who talks into a quiet space will usually say the first thing that comes to mind. This can be the last thing they actually wanted to talk about, resulting in inadvertent disclosures. Lawyers and peace officers use silence in interviews and depositions for this reason. But even if there are no secrets to spill, silence can result in much more productive conversations. Someone who talks freely and impulsively will often start to discuss what they see as the most important, or most worrying, concern on the table. That’s useful information for a negotiator who doesn’t know enough about the situation or the counterpart to know what questions to ask. Providing a silent space for the counterpart to fill lets them tell the negotiator what their priorities are and possibly answer those unknown questions without them having to be asked explicitly.
To be used effectively, silence in this context should be relatively short and subtle. Ideally the counterpart won’t know the negotiator is doing it. This makes it an effective tactic for low-pressure internal negotiations, intended more to get information more efficiently than a point-by-point question-and-answer session rather than gleaning secrets. Just a few seconds of patient, expectant silence as the counterpart is finishing a statement will subtly signal to them to keep talking, without making them feel awkward or making them defensive.
In the last few days, someone used this tactic on you. Either because they are a trained communicator or because the skill comes naturally to them, someone drew you into a deeper and more spontaneous conversation by listening actively but silently. That isn’t always a problem, but in a negotiation sometimes we are reluctant to be drawn into giving answers that aren’t carefully planned. Very few people have the presence of mind to reliably recognize this tactic and consciously say nothing, so it’s helpful to have some more active strategies to use to resist silence. When you’re done with an answer or statement, cultivate a non-verbal habit like taking a note or picking up a piece of paper. Or ask a question, tied to what you just said or the last thing the other side put into the conversation. When you do ask questions in negotiation, don’t rush to change or answer your own question; use silence even in those small moments rather than feeling the need to talk for no particularly good reason.
Silence is a hard skill to master, because many negotiators are reluctant to even try it. It should not be a pressure tactic, and the other side should not even realize in most cases that you’re using this tool. It is most effective when it is subtle and careful, and when it is used well it can reshape negotiations and extract surprising amounts of information while leaving counterparties with the impression that they are in charge of the conversation.