An old proverb says silence is golden. Perhaps nowhere is this more accurate than in the realm of negotiation.
The exact origins of this proverb have been obscured by time and there’s no consensus on when or where the saying began. One thing is sure, its pedigree is long and distinguished. Some version of the expression has been found in ancient Chinese proverbs and even Biblical Proverbs. Later variations of the expression have been linked to luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, with Lincoln purportedly saying: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” And Twain, ever blunt, saying: “Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”
So why has this this expression survived history and been taken up by numerous figures and cultures throughout time? Likely because of its wisdom. I’m sure we can all think of times we wish we’d held our tongues, knowing the result would have been better had we just kept silent. Have you ever said something to a loved one that hurt their feelings and you later regretted? Even the criminal law recognizes the importance of this message, codifying a right to remain silent. So we see that the value of silence is acknowledged in the private and public spheres, but an important (but less discussed) environment where silence is valuable, is the art of negotiations.
Silence can be a prudent course of action. It can also be a source of power. When a negotiation lapses into silence, people often get anxious and scurry to fill the silence with argumentation or tactics of persuasion. Is it good to fill the silence? Or should we remain silent? This may seem like a small question, but it can be a key factor impacting the ultimate outcome of a negotiation.
Many people wonder what silence conveys in a negotiation. Let’s say you’re in a two-party negotiation. If negotiations have been progressing, it’s inevitable there will be a time when the other party makes their point and you’re expected to respond. This is where you have a choice: fill the silence immediately or take a moment and embrace silence. It’s a binary choice. You must do one or the other. We know what happens if we jump to fill the silence. We’ve no doubt been doing this most of our lives. Too often, we jump in with a retort that probably would have been better if we had just thought about it for a moment. Often when we jump in, it’s driven by the desire not to seem “stupid.” But will people interpret your silence as stupidity, and would it really be so bad if they did?
Far from creating negative impressions, silence can be beneficial in negotiations, and if you keep quiet once the other party stops speaking, the resulting silence can be useful. For example, the silence (or pause) allows you the necessary time to absorb and appreciate what was said. This appreciation can then form the basis of a well-reasoned response, having had time to consider all, or at least more of, the ramifications that may come from accepting what the other party has proposed. In short, you can use the silence to help craft a response that bolsters your interests and best furthers your ends in the negotiation. And if the other party thinks the silence means you’re stupid, well, so much the better; maybe they will drop their guard. Let your response dispel them of the notion you’re stupid!
Stopping to think about what was said may allow you to better see things from the other party’s perspective and to more fully understand their aims and interests. This can be particularly important in negotiations based on relationships, interest-based or collaborative bargaining and ongoing or recurring negotiations (i.e. wage negotiations at your job).
Taking a moment to pause and reflect not only demonstrates that you are a thoughtful negotiator who is taking the other party’s statements seriously, it shows you don’t feel intimidated. When intimidated, people often scramble to speak, to assuage any conflict or perception of incompetence. Pausing to think demonstrates that you’re unintimated by conflict and won’t allow your judgment to be guided by perceptions that may or may not be valid. In short, negotiators who accept silence as part of the process are less likely to be, or at least appear to be, intimidated. More than that, your silence might even intimidate the other party! Let them be the one to squirm in the silence and perhaps rush to fill it, giving you extra information and insights to use as you see fit.
Though it seems counterintuitive, silence is a form of communication and there are times when silence can be the most effective means of communicating. Negotiation success is not based on who speaks the most, the longest or the loudest. Of course, silence won’t be appropriate all the time or in every situation. It’s important to take stock if silence is the right course of action for you in any given negotiation. But don’t worry about seeming incompetent. Seasoned negotiators use silence strategically. So, line yourself up in that category. Give it a shot. You might be surprised at the results.