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The Power of Silence

In the movie Failure to Launch, Tripp is a 35-year old man-boy who resists leaving his parent’s house, so in desperation, the parents hire a female “expert” to entice him to leave for good. Tripp dates gorgeous, nice women, but as soon as one of them gives him what he calls “The Look,” he finds a way to make her break up with him. Tripp has learned to “decode” the message “It’s time to get married,” from a woman’s look. No words needed.

The Japanese have a word for that: haragei, which describes that mysterious non-verbal understanding Tripp had. Haragei suggests that the best communication is when you don’t speak at all. And, therefore, Haragei also represents the power of silence.

Japanese negotiators use silence as a tactic.

When they stay quiet, they’re giving the other party the opportunity to think and, maybe, improve their offer. In one study, researchers found that Japanese negotiators were able to stay relaxed with silences of up to 8.2 seconds![1] In contrast, another study showed that English speakers (like you?) started to feel unsettled when silence in conversation stretched to four seconds.[2]

What is your threshold of silence before you need to talk?

In the article The Subtle Power of Uncomfortable Silences, Lennox Morrison provides a couple of examples of how remaining silent got negotiators a better deal. One of them was Katie Donovan, the founder of Equal Pay Negotiations.

Katie was interviewing for a sales job, and she got an offer on the spot. When the interviewer offered her a specific salary, she said she’d get back to him next week and then just sat there in silence. The interviewer raised the offer. She did the same thing. Finally, he made a third offer of 20% more than the first, and then she accepted.[3] Katie experienced the power of Haragei first hand.

Marcus Tullius Cicero said, “Silence is one of the great arts of conversation,” and while this is true during friendly dialogue, it’s even more crucial during a sensitive conversation.

Years ago, I worked with a sales trainer, Elaine, who had a bubbly personality, a terrific smile, and a fantastic attitude. Elaine retouched her lipstick before making business phone calls (yes, audio-only calls, not video conferences), and she tended to ask a second question before giving people time to answer the first one.

While teaching, Elaine would ask the group, for instance, “What do you reply when your client says your product is too expensive?” “Do you explain that it’s not, or do you ask him why he thinks that?” Elaine did it because she was extremely enthusiastic about the topic, and she was a fast thinker. She assumed others were as fast as she was, so if they weren’t jumping in answering her first question, it must have been because they needed her help. Notice her second question kind of clarifies the options someone might respond to the first one. (It took me a while to figure that one out.)

Are you a fast thinker who needs to chill?

Remember to make a conscious effort to adapt to people who are more reflective and need more time than you to process information—it will undoubtedly help you understand others and will make you appear more charismatic.

Ask one question that expands possibilities, and then wait.[4] Three full seconds (seconds, not milliseconds). Count them in your head.

[1] Yamada, H. (2015). Yappari, as I thought: Listener talk in japanese communication. Global Advances in Business and Communication Conference & Journal, 4(1). [2] Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E. H. (2011, March). Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in group conversations affect social needs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(2), 512-515. [3] Morrison, L. (2017, July). The subtle power of uncomfortable silences. Retrieved from article/20170718-the-subtle-power-of-uncomfortable-silences [4] Turaga, R. (2015, March). Managing difficult workplace conversations. IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 9(1).

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