The Sound of Silence is a song written by Disturbed and released in 2015 but made famous by Simon and Garfunkel in the movie, The Graduate. Its lyrics include the phrases: “People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening.”

It is the last phrase I want to dwell on: People hearing without listening. This is why silence is important. It is actually a very useful tool: to simply say nothing.

This point was made in a recent article entitled,  “Dear Negotiation Coach: When Silence in Negotiation is Golden” by the PON staff dated July 25, 2022. (“PON”) The article notes that in Western cultures, many people are very uncomfortable with silence. (Indeed, one study indicated that Anglophones can tolerate only a  second or two of silence whereas the Japanese can tolerate 20 minutes of silence.) In several ways, silence can be a very powerful negotiating tool.

First, it provides the listener time to REALLY listen and absorb what the other person has just said. Most people do not truly listen to what others are saying. Rather, they are busy preparing a response in their heads, ready to jump in and say it the moment the other person has stopped speaking. But, by allowing a few seconds of silence after the speaker has stopped talking, the listener is able to turn off her inner voice and really think, absorb and ponder what was just said. That is, to engage in Active Listening! (PON at 1.)

Second, silence will allow a negotiator to defuse an anchor. That is, when the other party makes an outrageous offer or demand, simply saying nothing in response for several seconds speaks volumes: the listener by her stunned silence has signaled her view of the outrageous offer or demand. Nothing really needs to be said. The “silence” has said it all. (Id.)

A third way silence is valuable is that it will help the listener become aware of her own cognitive biases that may be at play and to mitigate their effects. With silence, the listener can become self-aware of her own judgmental errors that may be thwarting a good negotiation response. (Id. at 2.)

Finally, silence provides the listener with the opportunity “to go to the balcony”: to step away from the difficult situation for a moment and look at it as would a third party, an objective party, or even how a stranger would view the situation and respond.  It provides time to reflect. (Id.)

When I teach mediation, I mention another way in which silence is useful. As noted above, most people can not tolerate more than a few seconds of silence. So, if I as the mediator, ask a question or make a statement, I will follow up with silence. I will NOT say anything more to fill the void. What I find is that the other party will do so; say something to fill that void and often what the party says goes to the heart of the matter. The party will say what is really on her mind- her deepest concerns and issues. Thus, in this way, I can quickly learn what a party’s needs, issues, concerns, fears et cetera really are. Simply … by asking a question and the saying nothing, I can learn quite a lot and perhaps enough to help the parties resolve the matter!

The sound of silence can be quite thunderous at times.

…. Just something to think about.


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