Silence is golden

November 8, 2009 · 1 min read

I stumbled onto a negotiating tactic at age 18, while renting an apartment.

I was looking for a sublet during a summer internship at Caltech. A student offered to let me take over his lease on an apartment a few miles away, and we were discussing it. At the time, I was slow to make any decision I saw as important, and this was one of them. So when he made the offer, I couldn't make up my mind. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

Me [thinking about it]: Hmmmm. [A pause.]

Him: If you take it, I'll help you move in.

Me [frowning thoughtfully]: Hmmmmmm. [Another pause.]

Him: OK, I'll knock $100 off the rent.

Me [eyebrows raised to indicate that this was attractive]: Hmmmmmmmm. [Another pause.]

Him: ... and I'll let you borrow my bike for the summer.

At some point, I realized: I'm winning the negotiation just by stalling. I even held out a little longer just to see what else he would offer me.

He was nervous about the negotiation, anxious to close the deal. His response was to sweeten the deal for me. If he had known me better, he might have just waited to let me mull it over.

I don't recommend this negotiating tactic in general. (For a good strategic approach to negotiation, see the "principled negotiation" framework explained by Fisher and Ury in Getting to Yes.) The lesson here is from the other side: Know when to keep your mouth shut. When you're nervous, it's tempting to fill the void by talking. This is especially true right after saying something you were expecting a negative reaction to: "We've decided not to give you a job offer." "I'm not giving you a raise this year."

It's better to just deliver the message, and then stop. There might be silence for a few moments while the person thinks and reacts; let it be. They'll answer soon enough, and your tension will be diffused.

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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