This is the biggest secret to negotiation

It’s been said that business, and indeed life, is just a series of negotiations. From convincing your cab driver to take the shortest route to the office to sealing a multi-million dollar deal, it’s all about getting the best outcome. Mastering negotiating techniques and tactics is vital to success in just about every facet of our lives.

There’s no shortage of advice when it comes to how best to negotiate. Research, training and practice are all vital parts of the process. And most world-class negotiators agree that there’s one other key to a successful outcome—knowing when to shut up.

Filling the void

Silence, it turns out, is one of the most powerful weapons an individual can bring to the table. Long, drawn-out pauses are awkward and uncomfortable, and it’s just human nature to want to fill the void, often without thinking. “In those situations, the first one to speak loses,” said Dick Pound, who was vice president of the International Olympic Committee from 1987 to 1991. “It’s a very aggressive technique,” added Pound, now a partner at the Montreal-based law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP.

Pound negotiated television rights for the IOC. He recalls an incident during the 1996 Atlanta games, which counted Visa as an official sponsor. Rival American Express had launched a series of unofficial ambush ads. Pound wanted them stopped and called a meeting with his Amex counterpart. During the faceoff, he threatened to call a press conference, at which he would cut up his personal American Express card on national TV. “And then I stopped talking,” he said. The card company caved and ended the ambush campaign.

Another advocate of the silent treatment is Michael Payne, a former marketing and broadcast rights director for the IOC who is now a sports marketing consultant. “Silence is brilliant,” Payne said. “I’ve been involved in negotiations where you could use that very effectively. The other side gets nervous and proceeds to dig themselves into a hole.”

Silence as strength

Silence can convey a sense of mystery and power, and it can signal one’s willingness to walk away from talks rather than settle for anything less than the desired outcome.

In some cases, a negotiating partner may break the silence by spilling information that strengthens the other side’s hand, revealing clues about what they’re willing to accept or constraints they may be facing. Payne said silence can be particularly useful in negotiations aimed at breaking a contract—a situation that could lead to a court battle. After a prolonged silence, the opposition may yield information through which “they effectively fire themselves.”

Academic studies support the notion. “By using silence, you hope the other side will speak (to their disadvantage),” wrote John Barkai, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, in a white paper.

Towards a win-win

Of course, at some point during negotiations you’re going to have to speak. And it’s vital to know what to say and how to say it. Much of that is determined by who is on the opposite side of the table. In international negotiations, ignorance of cultural norms can lead to disaster. Payne said Japan and Australia are good examples of how an effective tactic used in one country can result in total failure in another. “Japan is very much about saving face. You would rarely give a direct ‘no.’ In Australia, it’s more like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’”

It’s also good business, and can pay dividends in the long run, to ensure the other side doesn’t walk away feeling empty handed. Negotiations for the television rights to the 1988 winter games in Calgary as a good example of this, Payne said. “The bidding got out of hand, and ABC felt completely destroyed. They did not return to the table for 20 years.”

Pound agrees that it’s important not to burn bridges, even if it means leaving some money on the table. “I never tried to squeeze the last dollar out of our television folks or sponsorship folks,” he said.

And once negotiations are complete, it’s critical that promises are kept. That will smooth the next round of negotiations, should there be one. “Part of my stock in trade was that they knew they could rely on me to deliver what we promised,” Pound said. That’s just good business, and it’s what smart negotiating is all about.