Why Sometimes The Most Powerful Thing To Say Is Nothing
Silence is the Source of Great Strength
A book came out within the past few years that has become quite popular. It's called Quiet by Susan Cain, where she writes about the power of introverts to remain silent and focused in noisy world. Cain makes the argument that there can be times when saying nothing can be much more powerful than talking. In other words, there is real power in silence. In fact, Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu said, "Silence is a source of great strength."
There's something we can learn from this message when it comes to how we conduct our own conversations and negotiations.
Consider the example of when someone asks you a question. We've all been in a situation where a gregarious person engages us in a conversation. Only, when they ask us a question, they don't really seem that interested in our response. If we hesitate for even a nanosecond, the other person begins to speak again to fill the void of silence. They were never really interested in your answer anyway. They're engaging in more of a monologue than a dialog.
The catch of this approach is that this other person will never learn anything from or about you - which can become a major liability if you're trying to conduct an interview, close a sale, or acquire a company. The more you speak, the less information you will get in return.
This can become a major liability for, say, a salesperson. If they talk during the entire negotiation with a potential customer, they will be left to decipher how the other party feels about the deal. "They seemed like they wanted to do the deal," is what a typical salesperson response might be, when the truth is that they have no idea what the other person thought because they never shut up long enough to hear their response.
That's why the more powerful technique is to actually ask a question and then bite your lip. Say nothing - even as the clock ticks away with 10 or even 15 seconds of what seems like intolerable and awkward silence. While you might not realize it, you are gaining a position of power by your willingness to keep quiet rather than filling that space with noise and energy.
I have seen examples in business situations where someone isn't patient enough to keep quiet, they actually begin negotiating against themselves. In one case someone wanted to acquire our company - something he was very keen to make happen. But anytime he asked a question of me, he couldn't wait long enough to get an answer. Instead, he began to offer more money or to shift the percentages of the deal - all because he perceived that I didn't like what he had to say about an offer. The truth, however, was that he couldn't keep quiet long enough to actually get a response. So he ended up negotiating himself into a worse deal than he might have otherwise been able to strike.
The famed salesman Zig Ziglar taught the power of silence as a technique to counter someone's objective to a price. If the potential customer said something like, "The price is too high," Zig would counter by asking, "The price is too high?" and then bite his lip. By turning the objection into a question and then going silent, he could put enormous pressure on the customer. More often than not, they solved the objection themselves.
Similarly, great journalists also use the power of silence in their interviews - especially when they want to get someone to share something they might not otherwise talk about. Just by being quiet, they put pressure on their interview subject to fill that awkward silence.
But this is also why you have to be careful about when and how you wield the power of silence in negotiations. People will feel compelled to fill that silence. It really does put pressure on the other party, so you have to use it wisely or risk being considered manipulative or completely self-serving.
The next time you are in a sales situation or involved in a critical negotiation, consider biting your lip and keep quiet. Not only will you get more information, you might even get a better outcome as a result.