I have several friends who’ve done silent retreats. They find them amazingly restorative and centering. I’ve noticed that they’ve never asked me to join them. Why? They know that silence isn’t my thing. I tend to be expressive (sometimes to a fault), and I like filling silence with sound. There is, however, one exception — at the negotiating table, where I’ve discovered a number of benefits to being silent.
I had my first lesson in silence at the negotiating table early on in my career. I was negotiating with a window-tint shop owner regarding his carrying my line of wireless devices. (In those days, that meant pagers; if you don’t know what those are, click here.) We’d gone back and forth over volume and price. I thought I was doing pretty well till I made my last proposal. He asked some questions and then went silent. We stared at each other. I started to panic.
If that was a game of chicken, he won. After a few minutes of silence, I gave him an additional discount. He continued to stare at me, likely watching sweat roll down my cheek: “Is that all you’re willing to do?” I caved again. By the end of the negotiation, I’m fairly certain I paid him to take my product.
I shared the story with my sales manager, who, after listening to me go on about how this guy wouldn’t budge, stared at me in silence before remarking, “Thus ends your first lesson: silence is golden.”
It was then that I realized how silence was being used to exploit my insecurities, lack of preparedness, and inability to be comfortable . . . with silence.
We see the power of silence at the negotiating table all the time. I’m not talking about people who’re unwilling to share or who remain tight-lipped, but rather skilled negotiators who know how to use silence to their advantage. Here are some situations where you might consider using silence.
Ask and be quiet.
The first mistake people make when asking questions is asking too many questions at once. The next mistake is not shutting up, waiting for (and listening to) the answer. When a question makes the other side pause to think, many negotiators (like my young self) will jump in and fill the void. They feel bad for the other person, so they’ll explain the question further or give their own answers or even take the question off the table, thereby letting the other side off the hook. It’s often the answer to the hard question that will help create more valuable deals or shift power.
Be quiet before you answer.
This is the inverse of the above. If you’ve been asked a tough question or one that you don’t really want to answer, pause and keep quiet. There’s a high degree of likelihood that the other side will actually let you off the hook. If they don’t rescue you, then take those moments to think about your answer and give the one you want, not the one you feel pressured to give.
Create your own silence.
During stressful negotiations, you may need to create your own silence by stepping away from the table. Noise affects stress levels by raising cortisol and adrenaline. Studies have shown that silence can relieve stress in just two minutes. Lowering sensory inputs can help restore your cognitive resources so you can make better decisions. Don’t be afraid to create your own silence by taking that break.
When in doubt, be silent.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” If you don’t know the answer or aren’t sure what to say, then it may be better to say nothing. At the negotiation table, some dealmakers feel that if they can’t answer a question, they’ll lose credibility. In reality, you lose far more credibility by trying to make something up than just admitting that you don’t know. As Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”
At some point, I might try a silent retreat, but in the meantime, I’ll continue to practice my own silent crusade at the dealmaking table. And with that, I say . . .
We Can Help You Use Silence to Your Advantage.
Is silence being used against your team at the negotiating table to exploit their insecurities, lack of preparedness, or inability to be comfortable . . . with silence. We can help! Drawing on nearly 50 years of real-world negotiating experience, we’ll assist you with getting better deals, saving time, and creating value for all involved — not to mention preserving and even strengthening relationships. Let us partner you with one of our advisers, ensuring you’ve got the broadest view of your deal.