Silence is one of the most simple yet most powerful negotiation tools, but it’s traditionally positioned as an intimidation tactic that prompts a person to speak to their own disadvantage.
New research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that pausing for at least three seconds during a negotiation has benefits beyond making someone uncomfortable.
In a series of studies in which pay negotiations were simulated in conversation, Jared Curhan, an associate professor of work and organization studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues found that this extended but brief silence can facilitate a “shift from default, zero-sum thinking to a more reflective, deliberative mindset, which, in turn, is likely to lead to the recognition of golden opportunities,” their paper concludes.
In other words, when one person pauses to think during the conversation, it can help them to see talks as more than a tug of war and move deliberations forward to a favorable outcome.
Why A Strategic 3-9 Seconds Of Silence Is So Effective
In the first study, participants recruited from a university in the U.S. were randomly assigned to be either a job candidate or recruiter. The candidate and recruiter then had to negotiate issues concerning the candidate’s employment compensation package.
When a silence between three and nine seconds occurred during the negotiation, the researchers found that “a-ha” moments for outside-the-box solutions and breakthroughs were more likely to occur.
“Each party makes a concession on the issue that they care slightly less about, and in exchange, they get something back on the issue that they care something more about, so the net benefit is to both parties for making that trade,” Curhan said of these breakthroughs. “I think the silence is making people go ‘Hmm, is there any other way we can proceed here?’”
Why at least three seconds but no more than nine?
“We suspect, but we can’t prove, that the reason why there’s a particular window has to do with just pausing long enough to be actually helpful, but not pausing so long as to be awkward,” Curhan told HuffPost.
“There is often this romantic view that great negotiators are these very slick people and they always know exactly what to say … [but] oftentimes it’s better to say, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’”
– Jared Curhan, associate professor of work and organization studies at MIT
Of course, whether silences are perceived as awkward can be culturally specific. In one Dutch study, a silence of four seconds was enough to trigger negative emotions such as rejection, while a study analyzing the conversational silences between U.S. and Japanese bank executives found that the Japanese business leaders created an average of five seconds of silence per minute in conversation, while Americans produced less than a second of silence per minute.
It may be particularly helpful for managers to employ reflective silences during stressful job negotiations. In one of the studies by Curhan and his colleagues, status differences between the candidate and recruiter were accentuated. Each candidate became a freelance consultant just out of school, and each recruiter was assigned to be a chief operating officer. In this context, the freelance consultants felt less comfortable initiating silences for the negotiation, while the COOs were “more reflective and contributed to these joint gains in negotiations,” Curhan said.
The researchers speculate that this is because people in more junior roles worry about violating the norm of giving quick, direct replies to more high-status colleagues. If you’re at an impasse with someone who is especially junior, recognize that they may need the pause to think about ways to move forward, but are less likely to initiate it.
How To Apply Silence In Your Own Salary Negotiations
When someone is put on the spot during a job negotiation, they can feel pressured to respond right away. The takeaway in the study for job candidates, Curhan said, is to take it slow.
“There is often this romantic view that great negotiators are these very slick people and they always know exactly what to say,” Curhan said. “But in fact, if someone uses a difficult tactic on you … oftentimes it’s better to say, ‘I’ll get back to you on that,’ or ‘I’m going to need to think about that,’ because oftentimes you’ll make a much better response with time than in the heat of the moment. I see this research as being a microcosm of that effect.”
If you do find yourself getting overwhelmed during a job negotiation, take a three-to-nine-second breather to gather your thoughts about what benefits you are willing to compromise on and what you can’t concede. It could be just the right trick to get the ball rolling again.