The power of uncomfortable silences
At your next meeting, wait for a pause in conversation and try to measure how long it lasts.
Chances are – especially among English speakers – it will be a second or two at most.
Anglophones tend to be most uncomfortable with long gaps in a discussion
Even among sign language speakers, studies show that typically we leave just a fraction of a second between taking turns to talk. But while this pattern may be universal, our perceptions of silence differ dramatically across cultures – a crucial detail if you’re doing business internationally.
Anglophones tend to be most uncomfortable with long gaps in a discussion. And yet, knowing when to be tight-lipped can give you the upper hand in everything from sales deals and pay negotiations to presentations and staff development. Silence really is golden.
What one culture considers a perplexing or awkward pause, others see as a valuable moment of reflection and a sign of respect for what the last speaker has said. Research conducted at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in Dutch and also in English found that when a silence in conversation stretched to four seconds, people started to feel unsettled.
In contrast, a separate study of business meetings found that Japanese people were happy with silences of 8.2 seconds – nearly twice as long as in Americans’ meetings.
These cultural differences are reflected in the saying in the US that ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’ while in Japan it’s reckoned that ‘a silent man is the best one to listen to’.
In Japan, the power of silence is recognised in the concept of haragei (belly talk), which suggests that the best communication is when you don’t speak at all. “As soon as you need words there’s already a failure to understand each other so you’re repairing that failure by using words,” says Dr Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in the US.
No-one is saying anything but everybody’s thinking. They are engaged – Donal Carbaugh
The Finns – who prize privacy, reserve and the art of listening – are also happy to sit in studied thoughtfulness, says Donal Carbaugh, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “No-one is saying anything but everybody’s thinking. They are engaged. The frame around silence at that point can be very positive.”
So why do mother-tongue English speakers find long pauses hard to handle?
In the US, it may stem from the history of colonial America as a crossroads of many different peoples, says Carbaugh. “When you have a heterogeneous complex of difference, it’s hard to establish common understanding unless you talk and there’s understandably a kind of anxiety unless people are verbally engaged to establish a common life,” he says. This applies also to some extent to London, he adds.
In contrast, he says, “When there’s more homogeneity perhaps it’s easier for some kinds of silence to appear. For example, among your closest friends and family it’s easier to sit in silence than with people you’re less well acquainted with.”
The fact that English speakers are generally so awkward around silence is partly why it can be such a powerful tool.
Sales expert Gavin Presman consistently pauses after making a pitch – after reading that counsellors should wait five seconds after a patient finishes speaking. “In business, five seconds might be too long, so I leave three seconds and what happens is remarkable,” says Presman, director of UK-based training and development provider Inspire.
Recently, a potential customer told him, “You’re very expensive and I’m not sure if we can afford that.” Presman said he understood, and then waited. Ten seconds later the other party said he saw the value of the training and wanted to go ahead. “We often think that silence is people simply not speaking,” says Presman. “But it allows both people to settle down and reflect a bit deeper.”
Silence is the hardest technique to learn. It’s against our instincts. We want to fill in the blanks – Katie Donovan
Katie Donovan adheres to the adage, ‘He who speaks first, loses.’ Early in her career, the founder of US-based consultancy Equal Pay Negotiations interviewed for a job in sales and was offered it on the spot. When the interviewer named a salary, she said she’d get back to him next week and then sat quietly. He raised the offer. She repeated her tactic. Finally, he made a third offer of 20% more than the first. She accepted.
“More than product knowledge or anything else, silence is the hardest technique to learn,” says Donovan. “It’s against our instincts. We want to fill in the blanks.”
Rather than waiting until a tough negotiation, she recommends practising with friends and colleagues. “Ask a simple question, like ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ And then shut up. Once you’ve practised keeping quiet it’s very useful throughout your whole life, from hanging out with friends to buying a house.”
When to speak up
Of course, there are times when it’s better to speak up. Silence can sometimes be misinterpreted, says Tannen. Researchers of courtroom interaction found lawyers advised clients giving testimony to think before answering and not jump in immediately. But juries often suspected that a silence before speaking meant the person was concocting a lie, she says. “The intention and the effect of silence are often different.”
In the workplace that can mean a manager announcing a decision and assuming that if staff are unhappy they will speak up, she explains. The employees, however, may see no point in saying anything because the boss has made up their mind. “That’s a very dangerous difference,” she says.
Learning how to face silence is an important skill, says Matthew MacLachlan of UK-based Learnlight, a language and soft skills training provider – especially when working across cultures.
“Chinese negotiators are very, very aware that Americans like to fill silences and they are trained to stay silent and impassive because that will make the Americans uncomfortable and possibly make concessions without the Chinese having to do anything,” he says.
So, what’s the best response? “Grit your teeth and wait it out. Don’t offer a compromise or concession just because they are not speaking. If you have to say something, ask a direct question, such as ‘What’s your initial reaction to that offer?’
“Once a silence is getting into 45 seconds you could say, ‘Let’s come back to that in a minute and proceed with the next part of our negotiation.’”
In presentations, silence can be far more effective than dramatic passion, he adds. “Before starting, look at the audience and be silent for a moment because that says, ‘I’m in control. I know what I’m doing. I’m confident.’”
Give people a moment of silence to get beyond the emotional response and to start thinking cognitively
A classic example was when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone, says MacLachlan. “He introduced pauses so that you didn’t miss his key points. Because silence makes us nervous, our instinctive reaction is that we’d better pay attention, there’s something going on here.”
Equally, when giving feedback to staff or trainees, pauses count – especially if there are negatives. “If you keep talking you’re spoon feeding. Give people a moment of silence to get beyond the emotional response and to start thinking cognitively and processing,” says MacLachlan.
Silence can be an inward-focused thoughtful activity or an outward stillness where you give yourself the time to watch and think and listen to the world around you, says Carbaugh. Having observed the use of silence in Finland and also among the Blackfeet Nation, a North American Indian tribe in northern Montana in the US, he says he sees benefits far beyond wheeling and dealing.
“Silence can be a very powerful focal point for understanding ourselves, understanding others, for developing better mutual understanding and more productive outcomes and that applies to business, politics, education, law, medicine, every realm of human life.”