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Speak less, win more: The art of using silence in negotiations at work

Women’s leadership expert Selena Rezvani says filling awkward silences could stunt your career growth. Here’s what to do instead.
Two diverse businesswomen talking working together in office
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined how extended silence and a deliberative mindset create value in negotiation.EmirMemedovski / Getty Images

In a world where we are rarely alone with our thoughts, a conversation gone cold is cringe-worthy. We have such difficulty sitting in silence with another person that we often say things we don’t mean, divulge too much information, or talk about the weather (for the fifteenth time today).

For many of us, we’re so good at putting our feet in our mouths that if you ask an attorney in the United States for their number one piece of legal advice, I’m willing to bet they’d all say some variation of, “Say less.”

While you can hire a professional to do all the negotiating for you in a court of law, you’ve got to stand on your own at work. And when the time comes to counter a salary offer, resolve a conflict, close a business deal, or adjust your work schedule, it helps to know when less is more.

The power of silence in negotiation

In my book, “Pushback: How Smart Women Ask--and Stand Up--for What They Want,” I discuss how silence is one of my favorite negotiation tactics. I’m not talking about checking out of the conversation or being a passive participant – I mean taking advantage of little pockets of quiet - after making your request and before answering.

People-pleasers often feel the urge to fill gaps of silence to make themselves and others feel comfortable or reassured. The University of Groningen in the Netherlands published a study that demonstrates how, for Americans, naturally flowing conversations create “feelings of belonging, self-esteem, and social validation.” When silence interrupts that flow, we tend to feel rejected.

How much time must pass before those negative feelings start to sink in? Four seconds.

Whatever ickiness you associate with silence is something you can unlearn. In reality, silence is a neutral moment in conversation where you are freed from saying something you’ll later regret or agreeing to terms you aren’t comfortable with. It empowers you to speak thoughtfully, fully consider what someone has said, and see where the negotiation goes if they fill the pocket.

Silence as a strategy

Last year, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined how extended silence and a deliberative mindset create value in 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," said lead author Jared Curhan, Gordon Kaufman Professor and associate professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan. "This, in turn, leads to the recognition of golden opportunities to expand the proverbial pie and create value for both sides.”

Curhan explains that he and his fellow researchers expected to find that being silent during a negotiation would leave a negative impression on the counterpart.

“That is, if I lapsed into silence, my counterpart probably wouldn’t feel good about the relationship with me, or about the negotiation process; it can make the experience weird or unpleasant,” he said. “We didn’t find any of that.”

Here are some tips for using silence as a strategy in your next negotiation:

Set the stage with active listening: Before using silence as a negotiation tactic, actively listen to the other person. Show genuine interest in the conversation and ask clarifying questions to show you are fully engaged.

Pause to reflect: When the other party presents an offer or a point of discussion, resist the immediate urge to respond. If you need more than a few seconds to collect your thoughts, say, “I need a moment to digest that.” Forewarning your counterpart of silence can make you both feel more comfortable in the moment.

Use nonverbal cues: While remaining silent, use nonverbal cues to show you are still engaged. Maintain eye contact, adopt a thoughtful facial expression or jot down a note.

Strategic responses: When you break the silence, have a well-thought-out and strategically positioned response. In response to promotion you’ve been discussing with your manager, you might say, “Thank you so much for the offer. I’m really excited about it. Based on my market research and experience, I’d be more comfortable with a number like X.” By not rushing to respond, you're more likely to make decisions that align with your goals.

Be ready for silence to be used on you: While silence can be a potent tactic in our arsenal, it helps to be ready when someone uses it on you. If it happens, don’t let yourself become ruffled or rush to fill in the gap. Show you’re comfortable with it by adopting the listening pose, with your headed tilted toward them looking at them expectantly, or by resting your forearm vertically on the table in front of you, with your chin planted pensively on top of your hand, awaiting a response. If it feels important to say something at one point, you can simply ask “What are your thoughts on the last point?”

Embrace silence as a valuable part of your negotiation toolkit. Allow it to fuel you with the confidence that YOU control the energy in the conversation! You might be surprised to find yourself speaking less and winning more.