Silence is the most misunderstood negotiation superpower

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Picture a debate or a negotiation and it’s likely you’re thinking of a rapid-fire exchange of arguments between two animated parties. Silence, meanwhile, is typically seen as a sign that one side is stumped—dead air is for losers.

New research, however, recasts silence as a productive force, one that results in more satisfying outcomes for both parties during bargaining. A new paper, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, describes how pausing for at least three seconds before speaking allows parties time to respond with more meaningful rebuttals and counter arguments.

The study also punctures the notion that keeping mum is a power move meant to make your opponent uncomfortable.

“What surprised me most is that we started to discover that silence was being used to think and prepare, but not necessarily to intimidate counterparts,” says lead researcher Jared Curhan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management who specializes in negotiations and conflict resolution. “Through this deliberative mindset, you could realize that the best way to achieve your [desired] outcome is actually to help the other person do well.”

He elaborates: “In conventional wisdom, negotiation is seen as a tug of war—any gain to one side reflects a loss to the other. But it doesn’t have to be a battle and the pie isn’t necessarily fixed. There are creative ways to address conflicts and there is more room for agreement than people assume. Our study shows that one way to find that room and spark that resourcefulness is through silence.”

How long do these productive pauses tend to be? The study suggests a sweet spot of three to nine seconds. Longer than that and the pause can feel unbearable, especially for people conditioned to fill gaps in conversation.

Cultural lens.
Cultural lens.
Image: Reuters/Franck Robichon

Negotiating across cultures

Conducted with mostly English-speaking subjects living the US, the paper recognizes there’s an important cultural layer implicit in negotiation tactics that’s not captured in the research. “It just depends on what the culture’s beliefs are towards silence,” notes Curhan, whose research team included academics from Melbourne Business School, University of La Verne, Penn State Harrisburg, and ShanghaiTech University.

Learning about these nuances before entering a conversation is invaluable. For instance, in Japan prolonged silences during negotiations is standard practice. In one case described in Inc magazine, Japanese negotiators were totally silent for 20 minutes before completely agreeing to the terms of the deal.

“In cross-cultural interaction with the Japanese, the interjection of talk at the end of a topic will likely signal there is more to talk about,” language consultant Haru Yamada wrote in a 2015 article for Global Advances in Business Communication. “If the topic is otherwise exhausted, and a communicator insists on filling silences with talk, the meeting risks continuing endlessly.” This phenomenon reflects a Japanese interpersonal communication style called “haragei” (or “stomach talk”) which values ideas and feelings that are implied rather than explicitly stated in conversation.

The Dutch, on the other hand, tend to feel unsettled after just a four second pause. According to a 2011 study, halts in “conversational flow” result in negative emotions and feelings of rejection. Similarly, Anglophones, including those communicating in sign language, generally can only tolerate pauses that last for a second or two.

The Brené Brown signature pause

Beyond remembering to pause and think, fostering better negotiations also entails building a tolerance for silence. One can bridge the feeling of awkwardness with phrases like “I need a minute to think,” or “Let me wrap my head around that.”

Brené Brown, the celebrated leadership guru, is a master of the pensive pause. In conversations, she’s known to stop speaking for extended periods of time and signal that she’s earnestly considering a point or a question. “Her pause confers reflection and authority,” journalist Maria Aspan observed for Inc. “It makes you feel heard. Each prolonged silence is flattering to both Brown and her conversation partner: ‘What a great question,’ the pause says, before imbuing her eventual response with thoughtful weight.”

Curhan hopes the MIT researchers’ findings will seep into how bargaining meetings are structured in the US. “I think that the more we can make pauses be a normal part of negotiation, the more thoughtful our negotiation outcomes will become.”