Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 20, 2022
The above gap is not a mistake. That space is blank to graphically indicate to my readers what silence looks like, and by extension its power. Sometimes called the pregnant pause, white space in a conversation says volumes that do not have to be spoken out loud.
A recent article from MIT Sloan professor Jared Curhan digs a little deeper into the science of why the power of nothing works well. He and his co-authors argue that in fact, silence is often valuable in negotiations. It makes the other side believe that you are of a deliberative mindset. It suggests reflection and authority, when in fact, you may have simply nodded off based on the outrageous demands from the other side.
Curhan found that “breakthroughs were more likely to
occur after pauses than at any other point in the negotiation.” Personally, I use the pause right after the penultimate sentence. And in that way, I make clear that the next sentence really matters. Pay attention, pal, fastball coming high and tight.
We all have a tendency to respond quickly. Curhan says taking a moment of up to three seconds gives both you and your opponent a moment to consider, reflect on and digest the previous sentence. That pause adds to the power of “what is unsaid.” We all need to resist the desire to quickly indicate how damn smart we are — or wish we had. It is called biting your tongue.
The pause also decreases the chance for a loud response (let’s call it by its proper name — screaming) which normally occurs in a rapid-response, back-and-forth interaction. Think road rage. In other words, you need to slow down the conversation. If you hold the gavel, no one else speaks until you do.
If you follow television crime dramas, you will see that the superior, high-status, person in power will often use the long pause to create gravitas — and suspense. (After all we have been through, are you really going to kill me?) This is silence as intimidation.
Another type of pause is the deafening pause — used when someone steps over the line of accepted behavior (think of a sexist or racist remark). That pause, coupled with a glower, speaks volumes.
And then there is the classic advertisement from Coca-Cola in the 1920s — “The pause that refreshes.” They were selling “happiness in a bottle.”
Buying some time to think is a rational way to manage the flow of a conversation. In a dialogue that gets contentious, you can always ask for “a bio-break” or stand up and get a fresh cup of coffee.
Curhan’s study says, “extended silence increases value creation by fostering a more contemplative mindset.” The assumption here is that you are truly thinking about the issues and considering the other point of view, (or simply trying to remember if you put on the alarm at the house).
The use of silence has cultural nuances. “In Japan, prolonged silences during negotiations are standard practice,” Curhan says. In one example he cites, there were 20 minutes of total silence followed by standing up, bowing and nodding in agreement to the terms of the deal.
Managing the length of the pause is a balancing act. Study magicians. They are the masters of timing and misdirection. You wait to see what happens next. They rivet your attention. You can’t go any faster than they let you.
Finally, consider another golden rule, “He who speaks first, loses,” unless you are telling the guy to drop dead and pound sand. In that case, why wait.
Rule No. 718:
“Never miss a good chance to shut up.” — Will Rogers