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How To Use Silence To Your Advantage

By |February 20, 2023

One of my business school students recently sent me an email that said:

“One thing you’ve emphasized in class is using a skill and then shutting up. I was actually kind of amazed at how well not talking works.”

The “Effective Pause” – named so because they are! We like to say when we coach people – “Use a skill...and then shut the front door”. (Count one-thousands to yourself if you have to. I promise you won’t get past 7.)

What makes this so hard for some people?

Here’s a typical scenario: An Assertive, an Accommodator and an Analyst are talking (almost sounds like 3 negotiators walk into a bar doesn’t it?!).

The analyst stops talking: She says to herself,

“Man, I hope they see that I need to think for a minute and they stay silent.”

The Accommodator says to himself: “

Oh my god! I go silent when I’m mad! She must be furious! I have to say something!”

The Assertive says to herself,

“Hey! She shut up… she must want me to speak some more!”

OK. You get it. So, how do you use this to your advantage?

Placement – Where your “but" is.

Anytime you’re tempted to use the word “but” – that’s probably exactly where you should be going silent. Let your words sink in and have their effect.

This so hard for some people because of 2 basic misconceptions of silence.

1. Silence isn't always the "Silent Treatment"

For some they equate it to “the silent treatment.” If silence is the way you signal fury – you’ll have trouble with this. In some social interactions – silence is violence. There are even some studies that have equated the emotional pain of being ignored to being physically hit. No wonder some people like these two.

Why isn’t it true here? Context. And an aspect of our use of emotional intelligence (EQ) is contextual intelligence.

You going silent after you’ve communicated something designed to nurture and encourage collaboration is a smart move. You want it to sink in. It’s actually a very caring thing to do. You’re also not withdrawing here – you're being attentive.

If in-person, signal attentiveness with your body language. Smile. Nod encouragingly.

If on the phone, keep your tone smooth and encouraging. Smile when you speak – they feel it.

An effective pause after a cutting statement is a different application of the same strategy. You want the last thing communicated to sink it. You want your counterpart to think about it. It’s also using another truism that the last impression is the lasting impression.

Are you and your team prepared for the next negotiation? Download our  Negotiation Capacity Checkup to assess where you excel and where you need to  improve »

2. Silence doesn't mean losing

For others who fear the loss of control. The only way they feel as if they’re not losing control is if they’re talking. For them: not talking = loss of control and losing. No wonder it’s horrifying for them.

Now imagine if both things are true for you. A double-whammy.

I was once coaching a woman attorney who simply could not stand not to be talking. I asked her (when she took a breath): “Did it ever occur to you to not talk?”

To her credit, she went silent for a moment and then said “No.” Also to her credit, she got the message. And she didn’t get angry. (Here’s another truism the Black Swan Group teaches – it’s stunning what people will comfortably say “no” to.)

Also on the plus side, going silent is a great way to signal to the other person you really want to listen to them.

What’s it going to take to get a deal that is implementable? You’re going to have to get them to tell you, and they have to be vested in the process. That doesn’t happen when you’re talking.

Great reasons for using an effective pause:

  • It gives people a chance to think and gather themselves.
  • It helps the last thing you said sink it and have its effect.
  • If it was important enough to say – it’s important enough to be remembered.
  • It can be tremendously encouraging.
  • It’s a critical element of how you get the other side vested in the outcome.

As mentioned above, it’s stunning what people will comfortably say “no” to. 

Is your team ready for their next negotiation? Download our Negotiation Capacity Check-Up to assess how prepared you and your team are for the next time you walk into a negotiation.

Originally published on April 07, 2017.

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