Image for the article titled How to Use the 'Golden Silence' Technique to Win Negotiations

Photo: fizkes (Shutterstock)

I was on a sales call once and at a crucial moment a senior salesperson asked the customer if our service was meeting their needs. There was just silence on the other end of the line. A Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Nothing. Maybe the customer didn’t hear the question? Four Mississippi. Five Mississippi.

Sensing that I might throw in, the seller raised his hand to stop me. Finally, the customer responded. I had just experienced my first “golden silence” – a sales technique used to lead a conversation to a solution. Here’s how it works and how to tell when you’re using it.

This is how the golden silence works

The “golden silence” is a Sales concept developed by Miller Heiman, a sales training company. In practice, it’s very simple: after you’ve asked a question, wait at least four seconds for the answer (or longer, depending on the situation). It’s “golden” because, as the company puts it, a well-placed silence “vastly improves the quality and quantity of information the seller receives”.

Why should that be? People find pauses in conversation so uncomfortable that they can be subtly encouraged to break the silence. research found that this phenomenon is particularly acute in English speakers, as they feel unsettled after about four seconds of silence (for Japanese speakers it is twice as long). Plus, a sales pitch is really about understanding the customer’s needs, something that doesn’t happen when the salesperson has the whole conversation. A well-placed conversation can ensure that the customer is really heard. It’s like the old saying, “Slower, you’ll get there faster.”

How a golden silence can also help when negotiating

Well-placed silence isn’t just for sales pitches as it can be useful in pretty much any situation that requires negotiation. Since it is hard to read people’s minds, staying silent while negotiating can signal a position of strength, a willingness to leave a negotiation if you prevail. Also, if the other party is not speaking, they may rush to fill the void by saying things that are not fully thought out and maybe even jeopardize their position. The BBC has a good example of how this can work:

Katie Donovan sticks to the adage “first speak, lose”. At the beginning of her career, the founder of the US consulting firm Equal Pay Negotiations conducted an interview for a position in sales and was offered this on the spot. When the interviewer mentioned a salary, she said she would get back to him next week and then sat still. He raised the offer. She repeated her tactic. Eventually he made a third offer, 20% more than the first. She accepted.

G / O Media can receive a commission

Don’t overdo the golden silence

The golden silence is a bit of a one-trick pony. When it works well it can either strengthen your position or spark discussion, but when overused it can be annoying and manipulative for the other party, especially if they are aware of the tactics. Instead of viewing silence as a gimmick that will “win” a conversation, consider it a way to communicate more effectively, especially if you’re an undisciplined speaker who loses ground by talking too much.