Silence As A Negotiating Tool

Listening -- understanding -- the other side may be the most important negotiation skill. It is difficult to be a good listener when you are talking. But silence has other benefits discussed in this article.

I have written and spoken several times on the need to listen in order to become a better negotiator.  (Read more here).  The value is not only the obvious point that you cannot respond to a contrary view if you have not heard it.  It is at least equally important that the person you are negotiating with believes that they are being heard.  It is much more difficult to change someone’s mind if they do not believe you have heard them.

Complementing good listening as a negotiator is the value of silence.  In a recent article the Harvard Program on Negotiation (“PON”) contends that silence not only helps you be a better listener but can be a useful tool in negotiation.  The article lists four advantages of silence:

  1. People have a tendency to prepare a response while the opponent is talking rather than listening.  A rapid response may also signal that you weren’t listening.  One suggestion is to count to three in your head before responding.  The PON contends that active listening in a negotiation is not an instinctive skill.  People tend to advocate for their position rather than listening, absorbing, and responding.
  2. Silence (lack of immediate response) can be an effective means of overcoming the anchoring effect of an outrageous demand/offer.  The article suggests that silence in this context is particularly effective in phone negotiations.  Perhaps it has a powerful effect in on-line mediation.
  3. Silence also allows a negotiator an opportunity to think. In particular, your immediate response may be based upon a cognitive bias and pausing allows for a more considered response. Understanding where the other side is coming from can only improve the effectiveness of any response.
  4. The article concludes with a reference to William Ury’s advice in “Getting Past No” (Bantam, revised edition, 1993) to “go to the balcony.” When a negotiation gets difficult or is about to go off the rails, Ury’s advice is take a step back from the negotiation and try to examine the negotiation from the perspective of a neutral third-party (hopefully your mediator can help here), or go to the balcony. Silence or a lack of immediate response provides space for additional perspective.

There is no doubt in my mind that the best negotiators can take a step back from the heat of the moment and see the larger picture. Silence is an important tool that should be in every negotiator’s tool belt.

Only slightly off task, I conclude with a link to this fascinating article on some of the science of silence. Finland never seemed so enticing.

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