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Perfecting the Art of Silence in Negotiating


By Liz Tahir


As Sarah wound her way past the tables and toward the stage to get her “Top Salesperson Award” at the company’s annual dinner, her colleagues were mumbling about how someone with the firm only a year could have sold more than anyone else. Sarah was pleasant enough, but hardly the gregarious salesman type. When asked how, Sarah wasn’t talking. What her colleagues didn’t know is that was the real key to her success. Sarah was making sales by practicing the art of silence, not the art of talking.


Silence is the secret tool of power negotiators. Knowing when to listen, not talk. Using facial expressions, not your voice, to make a point. Here are five tips on how perfecting the art of silence can make you a better negotiator:


  1. Listen more. Listening is not passive. One can control the negotiation process by simply listening well. When we listen well, we gain the trust and confidence of others. When people are encouraged to talk, they tell us their needs, their wants, their dreams, and their plan of action; in short, they give us information. When we truly listen to people, we make them feel important, particularly if we are making good eye contact while listening. The problem is that most of us don’t truly listen when others talk. We just can’t remain silent long enough to really hear them. Chances are we are just marking time until we can jump in and start talking. We should be aware that every time we do talk, we open ourselves to being vulnerable.


  1. The 10-second strategy. Silence makes most of us uncomfortable. In today’s world, there is noise all around us, from the cell phones ringing, to the iPod in our ear, to chats around the water cooler. We are conditioned to noise, not being silent. Try this test: the next time you are negotiating with the other party, and they say something like “well, that’s my offer,” don’t utter a word for 10 seconds. It’s practically guaranteed they will jump in with another offer or more information, anything to break the silence. When you get comfortable with 10 seconds, bump it up to 20 seconds. The silence will hang like lead and drive ‘em crazy!


  1. Ask questions. A good way to learn silence is to ask questions, another secret weapon of successful negotiators. The person asking the questions controls the conversation. While you can get information from the person answering the question, generally if you have done your homework, you should already know the answer before you ask. Lawyers are taught to never ask a question without already knowing the answer; good advice. What you are really doing here is getting the other person to talk, perhaps to verify your information, but really to feel more comfortable working with you, and therefore to trust you.


Let’s turn that around. Realize that when someone asks you a question, there is no law that says you have to answer. Try remaining silent. The questioner will likely start talking again. A good negotiator who really does not want to answer a question might, after awhile, say something like “before I answer that, tell me why you ask.” Throw it back. Remember, there is no law that states you have to answer questions asked of you.


  1. Pause more between sentences. In a recent study, a team of scientists showed that in listening to a musical symphony, just a one-to-two second break between movements triggers a flurry of mental activity. So could a one-to-two second pause between sentences be just as powerful in helping others comprehend our information? Any comedian will tell you that it is the timing of pauses in their delivery that determines their success. Those of us who are fast talkers have to learn to be more deliberate and practice this art of pausing between sentences for more emphasis.


  1. The flinch, the shrug, the smile. These actions are all guaranteed to carry a powerful message, as you remain totally silent! The flinch is the quick, jerky movement of the shoulders, with a pained look on your face, as if you have just been stricken. It sends an immediate message you did not like what you heard. Once you flinch, then what? Why, remain silent. Wait for the other party to speak, and they quickly will, chances are while scrabbling to sweeten the deal. The shrug of the shoulders sends the message that you just don’t care; you’re not interested. Again, remain silent. And the smile. A silent smile is powerfully enigmatic (ask Mona Lisa), and the other party is left to guess what you are thinking. And, yes, again, don’t let the first person who speaks be you.


Power negotiators, whether sellers or buyers, know that what you don’t say is sometimes more powerful than what you do say. Use these tips the next time you negotiate and enjoy the power that silence brings.



About the Author


Liz Tahir honed her negotiating skills through years of making multimillion deals in company boardrooms to bargaining for a brass bauble in a Turkish bazaar. A former corporate executive, she has, for the past 17 years, headed Liz Tahir & Associates as a marketing consultant, conference speaker, and business writer. Liz has delivered seminars and workshops from Japan to Brazil on improving negotiating skills for better success in today’s international marketplace. For more information about her services, go to www.liztahir.com, or call her at (504) 569-1670.


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January 2008