How many times have you asked, “are you listening to me?” If you’re a parent or teacher, your answer is justly inflated. Regardless, we’ve all been on the giving or receiving end of this lightning rod phrase numerous times throughout our lives.
When someone asks if you’re listening, they’re usually disguising another critical query like, “does my opinion matter,” or “do you care about what I have to say?”
Humanity needs to be heard
We desire to be heard. We want people to not just hear our voice, but also understand our needs, wants, and desires. Being heard is an innate human need, one we’re more likely to receive if we voluntarily lend an ear ourselves.
But if we all want the same thing, why is listening so difficult? You probably experience this every day, misunderstandings between strangers in the grocery store, pundits talking over each other on TV, challenging mealtime conversations between family members.
We aren’t good at listening because we don’t like silence
Not being heard is a significant pain point for most people. But, somehow, the fear of not being heard often manifests by failing to actually listen to the people to whom we're speaking. Rather than pausing to absorb the (verbal and non-verbal) communication, we bulldoze our way into people's hearts and minds by sending messages in ways we believe they can’t miss.
Because just as much as we fear not being heard, we fear the word no. This fear is so great we’ll stop at nothing to prevent a no during negotiation, even if that means tuning out our counterparts.
As a result, we either don’t ask for what we should or we rush to fill up a silence we fear will lead to a negative response. Because when you combine the fear of not being heard with the fear of no, what do you get? The fear of silence.
A lack of silence impedes meaningful bargaining
There’s a false notion that embracing silence, especially during negotiation, results in losing power. But nothing could be further from the truth. There's much to gain from allowing the room to breathe, absorb, and think.
Quiet at the bargaining table makes people uncomfortable and anxious about the possibility of hearing no at any moment. Because the more the silence lingers, the more doubt creeps in.
For many, periods of quiet during negotiation gives them space to second guess themselves. They get anxious, and the internal negative self-talk starts. Was my offer unreasonable? Did I ask for too much? Are they taking me seriously?
I, too, struggle with this over email. I can’t lean on non-verbal cues in this medium, and not being able to read my counterpart’s body language is enough to drive me nuts.
Before too long, I’m playing a negative narrative in my mind, telling stories about all the reasons they’ll reject me. Instead of leaning into the silence and embracing the benefits, my mind fills the empty space with doubt and anxiety.
Embracing the silent parts of negotiation is a challenge for everyone. This is a skill that takes practice, but there are many compelling reasons to master quiet negotiation.
Here’s why listening matters
As Francis Bacon said, “silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”
He’s right. The more silence we allow, the more time we can use to carefully consider our decisions.
Negotiations aren’t a race to see who says yes (or no) first. Instead, they’re an exercise to reach a mutually agreeable outcome for all parties at the bargaining table. And the more silence those counterparts allow, the more likely they’ll achieve their goals.
Professor Jared Curhan of MIT Sloan recently researched this very issue.
“Our research suggests that pausing silently can be a simple yet very effective tool to help negotiators shift from fixed-pie thinking to a more reflective state of mind. This, in turn, leads to the recognition of golden opportunities to expand the proverbial pie and create value for both sides,” Curhan said.
His research found that periods of silence usually came right before a major breakthrough in bargaining during most negotiations. Moreover, the study actually pinpointed that those breakthroughs were more likely to happen after silent pauses than any other point during the negotiation.
The findings in this research show that silence is power, not the other way around. Silence gives you an opportunity to listen, truly listen, to what others are saying, fully absorb what they’re communicating, and collaborate to identify a workable solution.
Making decisions out of fear and pressure often feels right in the short term but wreaks havoc in the long term. Of course, this doesn’t come easy, but mastering the art of silence and listening is an endeavor worth taking.
The more space you give others to be heard, the more they’ll give back to you in kind. Silence isn’t your enemy. It’s your sword in the hard-won battle to cultivate genuine human connections. So embrace silence today.