The Negotiator Magazine

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Using Silence in a Negotiation

Michael Schatzki

Silence can be a very effective negotiating tactic indeed. It acts like a black hole, just waiting there for someone to fall into. If the person you are negotiating with is silent, will you rush in to fill the gap? Even perhaps making concessions just to make sure that there is some noise in the room? This article will help you to use silence effectively when you are negotiating and also show you how to defend against it.

First, you need to understand how you feel about silence? Dealing with silence can be tough. In our society, we are not really comfortable with silence, so you need to evaluate your own reaction to it.

Here’s a little test that you can take. Call up a friend and tell them that you want to do an experiment. You are both going to look at your watches and stay silent for a full 15 seconds. Try it. You both know what the plan is and yet you will be surprised at how hard it is to still stay silent.

Silence comes in two forms. One is silence contests. Silence contests are good if you start them, but not so good if the other side starts them. The tricky thing about a silence contest initiated by the other side is that they don’t announce, “OK, I’m going to start a silence contest.” It’s just that they say something or ask a question and then there is silence. And the silence continues and it continues and before you know it, there is a silence contest going on.

You need to watch for this and decide how you are going to react. Some people say that the first person to talk loses. I’m not so sure that that is the best way to look at it because, if you buy into that idea, it puts huge pressure on you to win the silence contest, perhaps even at the expense of more important things in the negotiation.

So once I recognize that the other side has started a silence contest, I usually go into denial. I might say something like, “now that I’ve had a chance to think about that”, or “well, that’s an interesting idea and here is what I propose,” or something like that. It sends the message that we just had a thoughtful moment rather than a silence contest.

I will also do the same thing if I was the one who started the silence contest and it isn’t working and the other person is not talking. That way, I deny that I was even using the silence contest tactic.

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July 2005