The Value of Silence in Negotiations

silence in negotiations

Embrace the pause.

By Yvonne Milosevic

It’s time to reconsider the so-called awkward silence. While a comfort level with silence varies by culture, the average pause in conversation is just one to two seconds among English speakers. But our urge to rush in and fill every gap is short-sighted—especially when it involves reaching agreements in our favor. New research shows that we’d be better off if we stop talking and instead harness the power of silence in negotiations. Here are four reasons why.

Pausing allows you to listen and learn.

Learning to become a better listener will make you more effective professionally and in your personal life. We’re often too busy coming up with our response to what someone is saying to absorb the total weight of their words. By pausing before speaking, you can think through both what you have just heard and how you plan to reply. Rather than spouting off the first thing that comes to mind, that brief silence will help you focus your thoughts. Then, when you do speak, your measured reply will have a greater impact.

silence in negotiations

Plus, those few moments of silence in negotiations may prompt your negotiating partner to jump in to sweeten the deal. People feel compelled to fill the silence and often up the ante if they think you might reject their initial offer.

Silence lets you defuse anchors.

In negotiations, the “anchor” is the first number put on the table, which then becomes the starting point for discussion. According to experts, “anchoring bias” describes the common tendency to give too much weight to that first figure.

Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation considers silence a powerful tool to forcefully defuse anchors in a negotiation. They write:

“When your counterpart names an outrageous figure, your stunned silence will far more effectively defuse the anchor than heaps of protesting would. Defusing anchors through silence is particularly effective in over-the-phone negotiations, where the other side may wonder (and worry) for a moment if you hung up in response to her aggressive offer.”

Silence in negotiations can lead to breakthroughs.

Recent studies conducted by MIT Sloan’s Jared Curhan suggest that pausing during negotiations can improve outcomes for both parties.

Using a computer algorithm to measure intervals of silence lasting at least three seconds, the researchers found that periods of silence tended to precede breakthroughs in the negotiation. In fact, breakthroughs were more likely to occur after silent pauses than at any other point in the negotiation.

“Our research suggests that pausing silently can be a simple yet very effective tool to help negotiators shift from fixed-pie thinking to a more reflective state of mind,” says Curhan. “This, in turn, leads to the recognition of golden opportunities to expand the proverbial pie and create value for both sides.”

Silence grounds you when nerves strike.

No matter how prepared you feel going into a negotiation, something could happen that derails your confidence. “When people feel anxious, they tend to negotiate poorly,” notes Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks. “They tend to exit earlier and make steep concessions, which leads to poor negotiation outcomes.”

You can stop your emotions from interfering with the negotiation by taking a few moments to ground yourself through silence. Not only will it give you time to compose yourself and regain focus; silence gives the outward appearance of self-control. It also shows that you refuse to be rushed by circumstances.

Finally, there’s one crucial element to consider when using the tactic of silence in negotiations: your body language. While you wait, make sure to keep a neutral or positive facial expression—no frowning or glaring. Maintain eye contact as you wait for the response and aim for a relaxed body posture. That way, you’ll convey confidence and reinforce the power of your message.