Negotiation Tips: The Silent Treatment and Asking Questions

By Chris Voss

When is silence the best negotiations strategy and when is it best to speak? How do you know when to say something and when to stay silent? For effective negotiators, it’s a frequently asked question.

First, understand that silence often can get you more. Mark Twain once said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever effective as a rightly timed pause.” Sometimes, the greatest accomplishment can be keeping the mouth shut. Falling silent, also known as the “effective pause,” is a powerful tool to use at certain times.

It is a skill in which you intentionally create a void in the dialogue, before or after saying something meaningful, to entice the other side to continue talking and perhaps expound on a point you were trying to make. It is arguably the most underutilized listening skill. Even though it is in our best interest, we sometimes find it difficult just to shut up.

What makes silence so powerful? It’s because most people are uncomfortable with silence. Most hate to stay in the silence for longer than seven seconds (we know because we have counted) before jumping in to break it. The average is two to three seconds. That is as long as most will endure this discomfort. The one thing we want more than anything else when we are uncomfortable is to get comfortable again. And, the pursuit of comfort will supersede everything, causing us to continue vomiting information in order to relieve the awkwardness produced by the silence.

Attorneys know this all too well. They are trained early on to exploit silence to encourage more robust disclosure. A friend of mine was being deposed in a civil case about conduct to which he was a witness. The attorney asked him a direct question. He provided the answer which was very succinct. After the attorney recorded his response on her legal pad, she stopped writing, cocked her head to the side and stared at him. She smiled but did not say another word. And she waited. And she waited. And she waited, hoping that he would continue speaking. Of course, he didn’t because what she did not know was that he was close friends with a hostage negotiator and he was familiar with the tactic.

Next time you’re in a negotiation, give silence a chance especially when you are dealing with an assertive person. Assertive people love to hear themselves talk because it allows them to show others how smart they are. So, when you fall silent, you are begging to be enlightened. Allowing them to speak plays to their ego, plus, at the same time, it can provide you with valuable information.

Silence is also effective to counter unproductive behavior like yelling, cursing or ad hominem attacks. Even the most emotional counterpart will find, unless they are psychotic, it difficult to carry on a one-sided “fight.” When they fail to elicit a verbal response from you, their emotions will dissipate, returning them to a normal functioning level.

Silence also will work as a tactic to educate the other side that dialogue is a turn-taking process. By remaining silent at the right time, you actually move the overall negotiations process forward.

When combined with other active listening skills, such as labeling or mirroring, silence also will afford the opportunity for your counterpart to provide you with the motivation behind their behavior.

On the other hand, understand there will be times when you must speak. However, it may be best that your speech include asking some questions. There’s an old saying that goes, “The question behind the question is more important.” That’s correct for effective negotiations.

Don’t forget that negotiating is basically an information gathering endeavor. Also, remember that everyone holds things back at the table when the situation dictates. People will ask you questions out of fear of saying something that will give away their position.

So, when someone is asking you questions, generally they are trying to piece together the puzzle for themselves, which is why they are asking you questions in the first place. In these moments, they are focused on something that directly relates to value-driven directives for them. Human nature tells us that in communications people generally try to fill holes in their thinking by asking questions.

In response to their questions, next time try replying with either one of these responses:

— “What makes you ask that?”

Don’t say, “why do you ask,” because “why” is often treated as a threatening weapon. Instead, “what makes you ask” is an innocent way to say “I don’t understand.”

Also, when you say “what makes you ask” with proper delivery, your counterpart will hear “help me understand,” especially if you have laid a solid empathy foundation to the current interaction. Another reason this is a great question is because if in the event they say “I’m curious,” “no reason” or even become irate, then you can always tell them that you want to make sure you answer the question as best you can so they feel treated fairly.

— “It seems like X is important to you.”

When you say this statement to someone, you are identifying what they might be aiming at, which reinforces the goal of negotiating as basically an information gathering endeavor. The information you receive to “what makes you ask” will put you in an even better position to identify their values. That statement also puts you in a good position to clarify your observations for the benefit of your counterpart and keeps the conversation relevant.