Delayed response: Replying to emails sluggishly but strategically

I have to admit it: I am a compulsive email replier. I feel the acute need to reply almost immediately to every email I receive. Unfortunately, this tendency is not always helpful, particularly in the context of an email negotiation. Indeed, sending a delayed reply, uncomfortable as it may be, can help negotiators in many situations claim value, thereby making life more negotiable.

So let’s examine what those situations might be. Consider the following five moments in an email negotiation that might call for a delayed reply:

  1. When they act inappropriately. It’s a hard fact of life: Negotiators sometimes act inappropriately. They make demands that are not just aggressive but uncalled for. They try to intimidate you. They break social conventions if not overt rules or laws. In these cases, a delayed response (perhaps a permanent delay) may be best, as it signals your reaction without drawing you into the downward spiral likely to ensue if you take the bait.
  2. When you want them to concede. More commonly, negotiators make requests that are not necessarily inappropriate but are also nowhere near the terms you deserve or need to reach a deal. You ask a service provider to match a $1000 discount offered by another provider and they offer a $25 gift card to the jelly-of-the-month club. In these cases, your silence may make them just uncomfortable enough to prompt an unsolicited additional concession.
  3. When you want someone else to weigh in. The email negotiations we all face in the workplace often involve multiple people. You are just one of the 12 people CC’ed on a message and eventually expected to reply. But wouldn’t it be helpful if someone else weighed in first—an ally, perhaps, or even your boss? A delayed reply can often create the space for someone else to speak first, which can often bolster your case.
  4. When you want to signal your alternatives. Particularly when you’re buying something big (e.g., a new kitchen, car, or landscaping service), you need to get multiple bids. In part, these bids help you learn and compare. In part, they help you gain leverage and convince each seller to put their best price forward. But the latter only happens if a seller suspects you’ll compare their price. Hence the need to signal that you’re obtaining multiple bids. Many sellers who send quotes and then receive delayed replies are sophisticated enough to intuit the reason.
  5. When you want to signal you’re in no particular rush. Alternatively, you might want to signal you’re in no particular rush to purchase a particular good or service. This approach is particularly useful for goods and services that most people buy in a moment of desperation—roofs, basement waterproofing solutions, and air conditioners, for example. Unlike most customers, who probably reply to such sellers within seconds, your delayed reply can convince them to cut the common sales tactics and focus on offering something competitive.

In sum, silence is aversive for many of us, in email or in person But temporary silence in the form of a delayed reply can also be wise in the context of an email negotiation, particularly for the purpose of claiming value. With that, let me silence myself…

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