The five silent strategies of highly successful negotiators

When most of us think of negotiating, we think of talking. So most of us might be surprised to learn that five critical negotiating tactics do not involve talking at all—they involve complete silence. Since understanding the five silent strategies of highly successful negotiators can make life negotiable, let’s consider what they are:

  1. Preparing: One of the most important negotiation strategies involves the silent use of a pen. Few tactics predict negotiation success better than the adequacy of a negotiator’s preparation—particularly the extent to which they quietly document and internalize the elements of the BRAIN acronym.
  2. Waiting: The worst negotiators get antsy when their counterpart or an organizational decision-making process hasn’t yet produced a reply to their proposal. So they all-too-eagerly follow up with the other side or, worse yet, make an immediate and unprompted concession. The best negotiators don’t do that: They silently and patiently await a reply, thereby signaling how little they need one.
  3. Listening: It might not surprise you to learn that the best negotiators listen, silently closing their one mouth to open their two ears. Or that doing so holds multiple benefits like letting the other side vent, share their interests, or offer tacit ideas on how to meet them. Unfortunately, it surprises most negotiators themselves, who spend the majority of their time with their one mouth open and two ears closed.
  4. Walking: Sure, this strategy doesn’t involve complete silence. The other side might hear your feet receding or the door latching. But the quasi-silent strategy of leaving the table is crucial, as it offers several invaluable opportunities: particularly the opportunity to check with someone else, compare a potential deal against your best alternative, or execute your best alternative if it’s better.
  5. Holding back: The best negotiators have a far richer inner monologue than their spoken words reveal. They mentally ponder whether a particular deal is better than their bottom-line, whether to share a sensitive piece of information, or whether their counterpart has a screw or two loose. But they silently suppress such thoughts, lest their negotiations go seriously off-track.

Sure, these silent strategies comport little with our image of the mythical negotiator. Still, I can tell you that negotiation research and the repeated observations of a humble negotiation professor fully support their effectiveness. So here’s to you, the silent but highly-successful negotiators among us.

Just be quiet! Three beautiful benefits of silence in negotiation

“Negotiation” naturally connotes talking—and lots of it.

But if I’ve learned anything as a negotiation professor, it’s that the students who shine in our simulated negotiations are not the ones who do the most talking. They’re the ones who approach negotiations in comparable silence. Not an intense, brooding silence precipitating a calamitous impasse. But a pensive, respectful silence that lets their counterparts sound off.

Since a quiet approach can make even the toughest negotiations negotiable, let’s consider a few of the many benefits of keeping our collective traps shut at the bargaining table:

  1. They’ll start talking. What do most of us do when a conversation partner falls unexpectedly and utterly silent? Squirm in our chair, searching for something—anything—to say. I can easily demonstrate it in class by stopping smack-dab in the middle of a thought and looking sweetly at the students. They hate it! Someone always giggles, then someone coughs, then someone comments. The same is true in negotiation. If you can summon the courage to bite your tongue unexpectedly, chances are that your counterpart won’t bite theirs. Instead, they’ll probably launch into a monologue on their own situation, which just might reveal some interesting tidbits that you could fold into a deal.
  2. They’ll vent. Sometimes, in negotiations and especially in disputes, we find ourselves sitting across the table from someone angry. Maybe they’re peeved by our last offer, seething over a perceived slight, or simply having a bad hair day. Regardless, an angry counterpart should cue us to say nothing at all. Why? Because even the angriest angry negotiator can’t keep it up for long. They’ll vent, and eventually they’ll just run out of steam. Then you can finally return to the task of talking like adults.
  3. You’ll cool down. I hate to admit it after the last point, but sometimes we’re the angry negotiators. Sometimes we’re peeved about an offer, a slight, or uncooperative hair. In these cases, most of us like nothing more than to talk—to vent, just like our counterparts in the last point. But since our counterparts probably haven’t had the benefit of the last point, they’re unlikely to follow its guidance. Instead, they’ll let your anger feed into theirs, which may eventually trigger a radioactive explosion. So, on the off-chance you feel angry, that too is a wonderful time to summon your better angels and stay utterly silent. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, count to 10 if you’re angry and 100 if you’re very angry. Hard to do. But dig down deep for the willpower, and I think you’ll be amazed at how quick your jets cool (and how cool you can keep theirs).

So next time you hear “negotiation,” don’t hear talking, hear…

[Silence].

The sound of silence—or successful negotiation

What does a successful negotiator sound like? Maybe you never asked. But if you ask now, I know the answer. Someone loud, aggressive, and potentially angry—right?

Well, I just finished teaching an executive education course on cross-cultural negotiation, and it struck me that the most effective negotiators sounded nothing like that.

Since understanding what a successful negotiator sounds like can afford some insight into successful negotiation, thereby making life more negotiable, let me share some observations. In particular, let me tell you why the most successful negotiators sound surprisingly silent throughout the negotiation process:

  1. Before a negotiation, the successful negotiator is quiet because they are wholly immersed in the preparation process. You might hear their pages turning or their keyboard clicking, but you won’t hear them clearing their throat and cracking their knuckles.
  2. At the start of a negotiation, the successful negotiator is quiet because they are listening rather than talking—processing all the overt and implicit messages their counterpart is sending rather than overwhelming them with rhetoric.
  3. In the middle of a negotiation, when the parties are exchanging offers, a successful negotiator is certainly making offers. But they are still surprisingly silent because they are trying to read the implicit messages buried in their counterpart’s concessions. If the counterpart concedes on issue A but not on issue B, does that mean B is more important? Only a silent negotiator would know.
  4. Toward the end of a negotiation, a successful negotiator is quiet because they are being patient. They know they haven’t quite achieved their goals. They’ve put the pressure on their counterpart and made an aggressive yet mutually beneficial offer, and they have the gall to wait out their counterpart rather than fold in a crumple of weakness.
  5. At the end of a negotiation, a successful negotiator is quiet because they’re not there. They’ve stepped away to use ratification on their counterpart’s supposedly final offer, thereby amassing leverage. Or to negotiate a concurrent deal, thereby amassing power. Or to sleep on it, thereby amassing wisdom.

In honor of the recent Oscars, then, let me tell you that the best negotiators in real life sound nothing like the best negotiators in the movies—at least the talkies. The best negotiators fade into the background, silently analyzing their way to a fantastic deal.