No doubt, you have encountered the situation where you are addressing a group of people and ask a question and are met with silence… absolute quiet! It feels awkward… no one is answering your question.(Indeed, Anglophones can not tolerate more than four seconds of silence while the Japanese can tolerate about eight seconds.( https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170718-the-subtle-power-of-uncomfortable-silences)
This has happened to me in my teaching. But rather view it as an awkward moment that must be filled with words, I use it as a teachable moment: silence is a great tool in a mediator’s (or, for that matter, anyone’s) toolbox.
Why? It serves several purposes. As explained recently in a Dear Negotiation Coach: When Silence in Negotiation is Golden (Pon Staff, March 16, 2021), “…In Western cultures many people are uncomfortable with silence. We tend to talk on top of one another, with little pause between point and counterpoint. Any silence that occurs often feels awkward. “ (Id.)
And so, negotiators knowing this, use silence as an effective negotiation tool in one of several ways.
First, it can used as a means of “active listening”. That is, to fully listen and absorb what the other party is saying. Often when another starts to speak, we tend to start thinking about our response rather than to just simply listen- and do nothing else- to what the other is saying. “Allowing a few moments of silence… before you respond will help you turn off your internal voice and listen more effectively.” (Id.) In simple terms, waiting a few seconds before responding will allow you to paraphrase, inquire and acknowledge what the other is saying, or in short, to actively listen. (Id.) By doing so, it will make the other person feel listened to, acknowledged, and heard, thereby building trust and rapport.
A second way is that it will help you to defuse anchors. “When your counterpart names an outrageous figure, your silence will far more effectively defuse the anchor than heaps of protesting would.” (Id.) In truth, this is true for any statement with which you disagree; the silence will speak volumes of how much you disagree with what was just said.
A third is that silence will help you avoid or minimize any cognitive biases such as framing, and loss aversion. By giving yourself time to think before speaking, you allow yourself time to ask yourself: ““What’s going on here?”” (Id.)
Silence also allows you to “go to the balcony” or to step away from the situation for a few seconds, and take a disinterested view, or an objective, third party view of the situation. It allows you to step back and look at the situation overall as would a stranger and think how would a stranger respond. (Id.)
Another advantage of silence is in the awkwardness it creates: often the other person, feeling quite uncomfortable with the silence, will blurt out what she is really thinking so that the “heart of the matter” is now revealed. She will say what is truly on her mind or is bothering her. Consequently, I have used this tool of silence often to get a party to really speak what is on her mind or what is really at the heart of the dispute.
So… the takeaway is that sometimes, the best response is nothing at all: just absolute silence!
… Just something to think about.
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