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How to Use Silence to Communicate–and Negotiate

Your ability to be quiet may be the most powerful communication tool you have, and here’s an exercise to practice it.

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BY Cathy Salit - 08 Aug 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Your prospective employer tells you the starting salary for a job offer, and you want more, so you list the reasons it should be higher. Your boss gives you feedback on an issue with your work, and since she doesn't know all the details, you list the reasons her perception is incorrect. In a project meeting, a team member introduces an idea that's not in the plan, so you steer the conversation back to the agenda. If these examples seem perfectly (or even somewhat) reasonable to you, then allow me to act as your coach and director for a minute, and offer you an alternative performance choice.

Silence.

(See what I did there? I inserted a paragraph break -- an implied silence -- as a way to convey the importance of the word "silence" and heighten the impact that it had on you. And now that I've hopefully raised your expectations a bit, let me explain.)

We live in a world in which human interaction is often reduced to rapid transaction, which is fine for all kinds of things, including sharing information, scheduling an appointment, or making dinner plans. But when quick, transactional communication becomes your default way of interacting, I think it's a problem because there's so much in business and life that just doesn't work very well when it's handled that way.

The idea that came from out of the blue in the meeting? A moment to let it sink in could open up the real possibility that it's worth considering, either now or later. Your boss's tough feedback? A pause after hearing it could allow your knee-jerk response to dissipate, and enable you to take in a perspective you couldn't have seen by yourself. And the salary discussion? Silence is a well-known tactic among successful negotiators, at least in part because of the useful information you'll get as your counterpart tries to fill the word vacuum you've created.

So now that we all agree that silence is, if not golden, at least worth its weight in gold -- how do you break the socially conditioned habit of rushing to fill every silence with words? One of the best ways I've found is a two-person exercise I designed called "Amazing Silence." I recommend you try this for yourself (with someone you've shared article with, so they don't think you've lost your mind).

In the exercise, you sit facing the other person, and start by taking a few seconds to silently look each other directly in the eyes. Then you begin by saying a couple of sentences about something important to you. It doesn't have to be your deepest thoughts or secrets (although it could be if you want), just something that you wouldn't normally share in a work context. You maintain direct eye contact the whole time, and before the other person is allowed to respond, 10 full seconds must elapse in total silence while you continue to hold eye contact.

Then the other person responds with a statement or a question, in one or two sentences. And again, before you respond, you sit facing each other for another 10 seconds of eye contact and silence. Back and forth you go like this for about three to four minutes.

When I lead this exercise in training sessions, people invariably marvel at the fact that the things that made them most uncomfortable -- the eye contact, the silence, the topic of conversation -- were exactly what produced the most connection. You're fully present with another person; you impact them and they impact you. And, despite how impossible it feels at first, you can do a version of this wherever you are and with whomever you're speaking.

Slowing down, allowing for silence, and totally focusing on someone else is about more than winning a negotiation, handling feedback or facilitating a meeting. You're also growing as a communicator. You're creating a new way of talking, a new way of listening and a more connected and successful way of relating.