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How To Use Silence To Your Advantage In The Negotiation

Written by: Roar Thun Waegger, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Are you comfortable with silence in negotiations? Few of us are, and that’s why so many just keep babbling and babbling. When people are stressed, they are often babbling even more. They listen less and there is almost no silence. Negotiation is a situation many find stressful. They feel anxiety and many sense a fear of silence. Many are even less comfortable with silence in a digital negotiation than in face-to-face negotiation. When you're on a digital call or in your resume negotiation people are not as comfortable just being quiet with nobody talking, especially if multiple people are online at the same time. Silence during negotiations is an important and very useful tool.

Silence often breaks the impasse

There is a tendency that we often go on talking when we really should not talk. We do this to fill the gap of silence. When advising clients, I tell them “Talk less, ask more questions, and dare to be silent”. Stop talking is the thing that often breaks the impasse so the parties can move forward.

I want to share an example where silence was used as an effective tool for the party that had attended my negotiation training in preparation for this negotiation.

The negotiations were coming to an end and the representative of party A presented their last offer openly and honestly, then they asked the other side.

«This is hard for us to accept, what are we going to do now?"

Then they left it all with silence. The negotiator didn't say anything, his team members didn’t say anything, just observed how the silence worked for them.

The feedback afterward was that the atmosphere was touchable, and the other side seemed affected and had no idea what to say. It all ended with acceptance of party A’s last offer, without much being said after this question.

This example shows how silence was used when the parties were stuck. It shows silence as an effective tactic leading to breakthroughs in negotiation.

Silence gives you time to think

Silence isn’t just the absence of noise. It’s a presence that can center us, heal us, and teach us. It brings us energy, clarity, and a deeper connection” writes Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz in their book Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise.

In the Harvard Business Review article, The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time, the authors refer to the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates that argues serious thinkers and writers should get off Twitter. It was a call to get beyond the noise.

Silence gives you time to think about whether you want to change the course of the conversation if things are getting a little bit heated. It allows you to think about how to cool things down. These informal unscheduled moments of silence are important but when we get into a conversation, over a digital platform or in person, many feel very uncomfortable, and people fill that space by talking.

Silence can promote listening

A third key use of silence can promote listening. Active listening is a very strong tool to use during a negotiation.

First, you cannot be listening when you do all the talking. This is why I advise you to pause and ask a short open-ended question. As the negotiator in the example, I gave above. Or you can offer a prompt “Say more about that” or “I would like to understand your thinking a bit more”, and then stop and be silent. This way you engage the other and get them talking. When the other side is talking, we are learning about what their objections are to our proposals, what they need for a good outcome, what is important to them, and what they find to be persuasive.

Hal Gregersen writes in an HBR article Bursting the CEO Bubble – why executives should talk less and ask more questions “Cultivating silence increase[s] your chances of encountering novel ideas and information and discerning weak signals.”

All that information is critical for what we are going to say next. Let me give you an example from my experience.

I advised a party in a labor dispute negotiation. The dialogue between the parties had become very hash and stall-oriented when we started the negotiation, and my client had asked me for advice to come out of the deadlock they were longer and longer into. My advice to her was to sit and listen. Listen quietly and actively. For a very long time both the other side’s representatives, a Managing director, and his lawyer gave a long narrative about my client and the work they criticized. My client and I have prepared well, and one of the situations we had planned might happen was this situation – a long speech by the other side.

My client became very emotional; I could easily see that in her face and could listen to her breathing and how her whole body came into a “fight”-mode ready to attack. By preparing for this she was able to handle her emotions and remain quiet. Instead, she took notes and prepared for her questions later. So, we kept listening, and listening, and listening. The longer we listened they changed their communication. They softened their vocabulary about the wrongdoing of my client and about her personality. What this showed, if you let people say what they feel they have to say to get their peace, even when they are repeating and redundant, and are passionate about it, it opens some space for them to think differently.

Our silence, their need to talk, our listening, and our questions led shortly after to a very good substantive outcome for my client. The silence was a very powerful and very useful tool for us during the negotiation.

Silence gives us a chance to reflect

A fourth way of the use of silence is that it gives us a chance to reflect. Silence will help you, and hopefully, the other party, handle the emotional refractory period.

The emotional refractory period is that moment in a negotiation when the other side has said something that is triggering you and it provokes a set of strong emotions. That could be frustration, it could be anger, or you might have been hurt by their comments. At that moment we have this tendency to get reactive instead of reflective. We start to defend, to name-call, to label the other side in a negative way, etc.

The reason this is happening is that the more conscious, decision-making, deliberative part of our brain is hijacked.

The use of silence gives us a chance to reflect. What our brain does is name to ourselves the set of emotions that we’re feeling. That naming helps move the brain activity from the emotional center of our brain to the conscious center of our brain. The emotional center is called the amygdala and our three F’s responses – the fight-, fly-, and freeze responses come from this part of our brain. I wrote about this effect in my earlier Brainz MagazineHow To Negotiate By Keeping The Brain In Mind

The psychologist and consultant from UCLA, Matthew Lieberman, refers to this as “affective labeling”. His brain scan research shows that this labeling of emotion appears to decrease activity in the brain’s emotional centers, including the amygdala. We use the silence, and we say to ourselves; “I’m feeling angry and frustrated, hurt, and annoyed now”. The task we give ourselves help us be more productive in the dialogue we have around the negotiation table.

Silence can slow down the pace

Another strategic use in which silence is incredibly helpful in negotiation is that it can slow down the pace of a negotiation. Maybe a topic is escalating or when things are going off the rails, then silence is giving us a chance to minimize a topic that could be a blow-up for us.

By using silence, you give yourselves a chance to get an accurate appraisal of what is going on. Maybe you can express something like “This is not going so well, and we are not in a good spot right now. On the other hand, could we be able to establish a situation we will be able to restore the conversation so we can continue?”

If we can use silence to get that perspective, chances are that the blow-up moment more easily could disappear. Silence is a nice way to slow things down and invite everyone to the table to be more purposeful.

This is a tactic very useful in negotiation. Just sit there, let both your side of the table and the other side catch their breath, and then make a move to kind of reorient where we are in the conversation.

Silence promotes creativity

Research shows silence promotes creativity in negotiations. This research was conducted by Jared Curhan and colleagues at MIT Sloan Business School. Negotiators often feel they need to immediately respond to a comment or question, so they do not appear weak. This research suggests that instead of this immediate response the negotiator should pause silently for a few seconds. When silence was used as a tactic, the silence user tended to adopt a deliberative mindset and was more likely to recognize opportunities for both sides to get more of what they wanted.

This silent pause can be a simple yet very effective tool to help negotiators shift from fixed-pie thinking to a more reflective state of mind. This, in turn, leads to the recognition of golden opportunities to expand the proverbial pie and create value for both sides.

The findings have practical applications for everyday negotiations and their study shows that one way to find that room and spark that resourcefulness is through silence.

I hope you as a manager or negotiator can reflect on this advice and act on them in your upcoming work.

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Roar Thun Waegger, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Roar is a facilitator, advisor, and mediator, and he founded Waegger Negotiation Institute (WNI) in 2017. Up to 2017 has Roar been working as a lawyer with employment and labor law, and he has extensive experience in practical negotiations and long-time influence work. With his experience and training from Harvard PON and Pepperdine’s Straus' Institute in negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution he helps his clients solve their challenges.



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