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In negotiation, use silence to improve outcomes for all

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An online search returns hundreds of negotiation preparation checklists that all point in the same general direction: Know your strengths. Know your vulnerabilities. Clarify the interests and priorities of the other party. Determine your best alternative to a negotiated agreement. And so on.

Rarely, though, do these checklists encourage silence.

But new research led by Gordon Kaufman Professor and associate professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan, suggests that pausing during negotiations can improve outcomes — and not only for the person who initiates the silence, but for both parties in the negotiation.

“When put on the spot to respond to a tricky question or comment, negotiators often feel as though they must reply immediately so as not to appear weak or disrupt the flow of the negotiation,” said Curhan, who collaborated with Jennifer R. Overbeck of Melbourne Business School, Yeri Cho of the University of La Verne, Teng Zhang of Penn State Harrisburg, and Yu Yang of ShanghaiTech University. 

“Our research suggests that pausing silently can be a simple yet very effective tool to help negotiators shift from fixed-pie thinking to a more reflective state of mind," said Curhan. "This, in turn, leads to the recognition of golden opportunities to expand the proverbial pie and create value for both sides.”

The paper, “Silence is golden: Extended silence, deliberative mindset, and value creation in negotiation,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The research consists of four studies. In the first study, the research team explored the effect of silence as it occurs naturally in a negotiation. Participants arrived at a laboratory two at a time and were randomly assigned to one of two roles — candidate or recruiter — in a negotiation simulation. The candidate and recruiter negotiated over multiple issues concerning the candidate's employment compensation package.

Using a computer algorithm to measure intervals of silence lasting at least three seconds, the team found that periods of silence tended to precede breakthroughs in the negotiation. In fact, breakthroughs were more likely to occur after silent pauses than at any other point in the negotiation.

Three subsequent experiments looked at how people can use silence as a strategy. Again, participants were randomly assigned roles in an employment negotiation; but for these studies, at least one party was privately instructed to add silent pauses to their negotiation. The researchers found that when silence was used as a tactic, the initiator tended to adopt a deliberative mindset and was more likely to recognize opportunities for both sides to get more of what they wanted.

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Curhan explained that these findings are important not only for what they showed — that silence improves outcomes — but also for what they didn’t show. “We expected that initiating silence would have a negative effect on the counterpart’s subjective value. That is, if I lapsed into silence, my counterpart probably wouldn’t feel good about the relationship with me, or about the negotiation process; it can make the experience weird or unpleasant,” he said. “We didn’t find any of that.”

There was, however, one important exception to the findings. When the status differences between parties was highlighted and a negotiator of lower status (candidate) was asked to initiate silence with someone of higher status (recruiter), there were no benefits, and the candidate felt worse about the process. Curhan suggested this is because, rather than opening space for reflection, the silence is doing the opposite, making the candidate uncomfortably fixated on the tension sometimes present in silence.

Related to this, Curhan noted the study did not investigate the words that people used prior to silence, or the body language that accompanied it — in essence, the different variables that might give meaning to the silence. “You could speculate that saying, ‘Hey, can you give me a second to think through what you just said,’ and then going silent for 15 seconds would probably be less aversive than if you just went silent after being asked a question,” Curhan said. “These are details that we didn’t look at: What words and gestures do people use before they initiate a silence or during the silence that either facilitate or destroy its effects?”

And while the study examined a straightforward, transactional form of negotiation, Curhan noted the findings likely have broad application beyond discussion of salary and vacation days. A pause could help in any interpersonal situation where opinions butt heads or where the temperature in the room starts to rise.

“There are creative ways to address conflicts, and there is more room for agreement than people assume,” Curhan said. “Our study shows that one way to find that room and spark that resourcefulness, to see a situation in a more holistic sense, is through silence.”

Apply to attend 'Negotiation for Executives,' an MIT Sloan Executive Education course taught by Jared Curhan.

For more info Zach Church Editorial Director (617) 324-0804

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