Using Silence in Conversation and Negotiation

Guy Kawasaki’s latest blog post, 8 more ways to improve presentations, includes a very interesting eighth and last point that reminded me this morning of something I was taught, as an American doing business in Japan, about using silence as an integral part of a conversation.

That eighth point is “don’t overwhelm the audience. Be entertaining but use moments of silence, soft speech, and slow cadence.”

Guy’s talking about presentations, specifically, and the point is very important in that context.

I think, however, you can take it further. Silence is one of the most powerful tools in conversation, and, perhaps more to the business point, negotiation.

My story on this goes back to the early 1990s.  I was going to do business planning seminars for Apple in Japan and the Apple managers involved had the sense to get me some special tutoring from Dianne Saphiere, an expert in crossing cultures between the U.S. and Japan.

Dianne said that the Japanese culture appreciates and respects silence as part of a conversation. Westerners, on the other hand, hate and fear silence. We call it awkward. It drives us crazy.

Silence can be as simple as a matter of respect. The person who understands and uses silence might be indicating that you’ve made an important point, so he or she respects that by waiting to respond. You, however, have to avoid fearing silence and forcing a response. Wait for the silence.

Dianne said that sometimes a Japanese person will win concessions from an American simply by not fearing silence. For example, the American breaks what seems like an awkward pause by lowering the price, thinking that the silence is disapproval. The Japanese person, however, was simply respecting the importance of the offer.

Since then I’ve often seen how silence can work as a tool. As you talk with somebody, and particularly in negotiations, use this to your favor. Take your time. As Guy’s point suggests, “use moments of silence, soft speech, and slow cadence.”



  • 7 Hacks for Getting and Keeping Great Mentors | UnCollegeUnCollege says:

    […] Don’t be afraid of a little silence – In some Asian cultures (like Japan) silence is the most respectful response after someone says something valuable…it signals […]

  • Kurt Gerwitz says:

    Where could silence be practically applied… specifically?

    Here's my story today:

  • Christopher Richards says:

    Thank you. We can learn much from this topic, silence. Many Americans do feel uncomfortable with silence, but not all.

    Silence is an integral part of conversation, selling, and presenting. But these are skills that don't come naturally to a fast-paced work world where consideration is not valued but (often mindless) action is.

    Think about any memorable speech. The power comes from pauses. Look at any accomplished comedian. They use timing. What is timing if it isn't the use of silence. Music is punctuated by silence.

    In their classic book, Conceptual Selling, Miller and Heiman use silence as a selling technique. The even called it Golden Silence. Not only that, they have broken it into two parts. I have used the technique in negotiations and it works. Saying nothing can be a lot of fun.

    For about five years, I ran a Socratic discussion group. We would choose a question and investigate it. You might call this street philosophy. It was a fertile creative ground for ideas and thinking. It was the best training for sales imaginable, although that wasn't the aim.

    At several points there were the twelve of us sitting in silence considering the question. This was the group working at its best. We had trained ourselves out of serial monologues. Lets face it, opinion, or worse, "input", is what passes for conversation in business.

    I should point out that our group did not encourage stories, conversational hijacking, or debate. These all have their place but not in an investigative discussion. It was about asking questions. Asking the right questions is the secret of life.

    We could do with slowing down and a lot more silence in the business world.

    Great post.

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