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Why Silence Can Be Golden for Negotiators

Elizabeth Lewis
Why Silence Can Be Golden For Negotiators

I was recently fascinated to learn of the experience of American environmentalist Dr John Francis who chose to give up speaking for an unbelievable 17 years.... When he did utter his first words after such an extraordinary length of time, he didn’t even recognise his own voice! 


At this point, you may be wondering why anybody would voluntarily choose to stop talking for a period of 17 years. Francis didn’t initially set out to stay silent for that long – he first made the decision to ‘shut up’ for just 1 day in response to ongoing disputes with locals in his hometown. These disagreements stemmed from his choice to abstain from the use of motorised vehicles, a decision he says led them to believe he was trying to make them feel guilty for not doing the same and which resulted in anger directed at him. 


Francis’ initial reaction to this anger isn’t surprising. He became argumentative. "I spent many days and many miles arguing about the merits of walking, and that I was going to make a difference by walking," he said. However, he then made an interesting discovery – his attempts to argue and persuade his point of view didn’t seem to be advancing his cause. 


This observation then led to a dramatic decision. “I said, you know what, I'm just going to shut up for the day,". In doing so, Francis came to a startling realisation. When confronted with views that didn’t align with his own – he'd just interject to push his own agenda. "I realised that I hadn't been listening to anyone, because … I was thinking all the time of what I was going to say back to them...I had stopped learning.".  


The desire to continue learning from the people and world around him inspired him to continue his silent journey for the aforementioned 17-year period. In that time, Dr Francis made some further key observations: 

  • "There are a number of ways of communication … probably about 75 per cent of our communication is really non-verbal," he says, pointing to physical cues and scents. 
  • "If I was quiet … people would say things that I really ought to have listened to,". 


I can’t help but feel there is a valuable lesson for negotiators from the remarkable story of Dr Francis’ lengthy vow of silence and his subsequent reflections. 


When asking questions during a negotiation, are you allowing your counterpart to actually answer the question and actively listening to their reply? Sounds simple, but it often doesn’t play out this way. We commonly find that people are thinking of their own response rather than listening or are demonstrating the same kind of interrupting, arguing and pushing of points of view mentioned by Dr Francis. 


The danger in doing so, is not only the potential to cause tension with your counterpart (nobody likes to be spoken over the top of!) but that you are likely to miss important information and signals – either in the form of verbal or non-verbal cues. 


Additionally, are you summarising to show that you have listened and understood? This is an important step that can prevent misunderstandings and issues down the track but also goes a long way to building trust and rapport with your counterpart – people like to feel heard and understood! 


And finally – consider that by listening to your counterpart, you’re likely to encourage them to do the same in return. 


Happy negotiating! 

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